When David Kassick, an unarmed 59-year-old, was fatally shot by a Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, police officer during a routine traffic stop in early February, his case barely registered a blip on the national radar. By then, nearly 100 other Americans had already lost their lives at the hands of police since the beginning of the year.
But Kassick’s case departs from what has become a tragically common narrative. For starters, the cop who shot him was charged with criminal homicide — a rarity in such scenarios.
Even rarer is that the officer accused of firing two bullets into his back while he was lying facedown on the ground is a woman. She is one of only two female cops ever to face a murder charge in the U.S. for killing a suspect while on duty, according to available data and independent research.
The chances of getting shot by a female cop are slim, and it’s not just because there are so few women in police departments. Data show that female cops discharge their firearms at rates far below their male counterparts, face significantly fewer civilian complaints and are less likely than men to resort to unnecessary physical force when arresting someone.
The evidence is not just statistical. As a veteran female officer explained recently, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relationships with her colleagues, “I’ve never been in a fight on my own, because I never had to. I’ve only been in fights instigated by my male counterparts.”
Studies also show that female police officers are more inclined to view their job as a public service than men do and are better at communication, de-escalation and trust building — all hallmarks of community policing.
“All the things people are saying they want in their police forces, women are already naturally good at,” said Penny Harrington, a former police chief of Portland, Oregon, and a co-founder of the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP), in a phone interview this week.
Law enforcement is one of the least gender diverse of any public-sector profession, with male officers accounting for more than 88 percent of the nation’s municipal police forces. Discussions of diversity in policing have focused almost exclusively on hiring more minority officers — which, for all its potential benefits, has been shown to have a negligible impact on levels of excessive force.
If we’re serious about curbing police violence, a good place to start would be to increase the recruitment and promotion of female cops. Unfortunately, the last concerted effort to reduce gender disparities in policing fizzled out in the absence of sustained political pressure.
For most of America’s history, the policing profession was almost exclusively white and male. In 1970 women accounted for less than 2 percent of sworn officers, with most relegated to gender-specific units or clerical positions. That began to change in 1972, when the Supreme Court expanded Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to the public sector, holding police departments accountable for hiring discrimination for the first time.
Over the next two decades, lawsuits and consent decrees between the federal government and cities such as Cincinnati, Los Angeles and New Haven, Connecticut, led to more female cops being hired. In 1975 the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police signed a settlement requiring it to hire one female officer for every male it recruited. By 1990, the department set what remains a national record in gender equality, with an active duty force that was 27.2 percent female — three times the national average at the time.
Around the same period, researchers began studying differences in the way male and female officers respond to members of their communities. Perhaps the most famous study is from the Christopher Commission, which was convened to assess the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Among its crucial findings were that female officers were responsible for a small fraction of the payouts the city made to settle use-of-force complaints and that, of the 120 officers identified as being the most problematic, not a single one was female.
A comparison of excessive force complaints from seven major U.S. police agencies, released in 2002, found that male officers are nearly nine times as likely to be disciplined for excessive force as female officers are.
As consent decrees expired, police departments gradually reverted to their old hiring practices.
According to hiring data gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, women account for about 12 percent of active duty police officers. Even in Pittsburgh — once the model for gender equity in policing — women now make up 17 percent of sworn officers, a drop of nearly 40 percent from its 1990 peak.
Even with increased recruitment, women haven’t found an easy place on U.S. police forces. Female cops face a number of challenges, including sexual harassment and bias from male officers. Meanwhile, barriers to promotion continue to keep qualified female candidates from ascending the ranks to leadership positions where they can effect change. According to the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE), as of 2013, there were only 219 women holding top leadership positions, out of more than 14,000 U.S. police agencies.
Harrington says many departments still promote officers to command positions from elite units such as SWAT and narcotics that are historically male dominated. For instance, Los Angeles began accepting women for its SWAT training program only in 2008.
Testifying in January before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, NAWLEE President and University of Connecticut Police Department Chief Barbara O’Connor emphasized the need for radical changes to archaic recruitment and training standards that overwhelmingly favor men. For instance, many departments offer hiring incentives for combat veterans, who are overwhelmingly male, and use brute force fitness standards that favor male applicants yet have little bearing on the actual work of policing.
It should be clear by now that the last thing America’s police need is to be more forceful or brutal. What we need now are more officers who are skilled in tactics that aren’t measured on an obstacle course. There must be many men who fill the bill. The numbers suggest there could be even more women.