Women's advocates say police should hire more female officers

Class of 2009
The Minneapolis Police Academy's class of 2009 pose during their graduation ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009.
Brandt Williams / MPR News

At 5 feet 4 inches tall and 125 pounds, Sgt. Sarah Nasset of the St. Paul Police is not about to get into a fight if she doesn't have to.

"I've always had to use my brains or try to talk the person down or talk them into the squad car or use other techniques to get the handcuffs on them," said Nasset, who has been a member of the department for two decades.

She said women officers are generally not as physically imposing as their male colleagues and have to use other methods to get uncooperative suspects to follow their commands.

In a time of increased tensions between police and communities, some women's advocates say police departments nationwide could benefit from that approach. With that in mind, they say the gender of police officers also needs to be part of the discussion that is occurring in many cities following the recent deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Missouri and New York.

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Grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved touched off a nationwide debate about race and policing. Some say research and anecdotal evidence show female officers are much less likely than male officers to use excessive force.

"The research shows that, overwhelmingly, women are less authoritarian in their approach to policing," said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "They are much better at defusing a potentially violent confrontation before it becomes violent."

Spillar, who said police departments should also hire more women officers, cites a 2002 study (PDF) conducted by the National Center for Women in Policing, a division of the Foundation.

Researchers found that in several big city police departments, female officers were several times less likely than male officers to be named in excessive force complaints and lawsuits.

In Minneapolis, which was not part of the study, officer conduct lawsuits have cost taxpayers more than $21 million over the last 11 years.

MPR News examined court documents related to more than 50 officer conduct lawsuits settled since 2010. Only three of those cases involved women officers accused of using excessive force.

MPR News also examined 398 "use of force" reports filed by Minneapolis police officers last year. Those reports are required whenever an officer uses physical restraint, chemical irritants, and electric shock devices like Tasers or firearms. In the reports that identified officers, about 13 percent involved female officers using force — slightly less than the percentage of women on the force. Officers rarely indicated the type of force used in the public portion of the reports.

Chief Janee Harteau spoke with N. Mpls. residents.
Police chief Janee Harteau spoke with residents of north Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 department efforts to reduce violence in their neighborhoods. She was joined by Minneapolis city council president Barb Johnson who represents part of the area, and Fourth Precinct Inspector Mike Kios.
Brandt Williams / MPR News

Chief Janee Harteau, the city's first female police chief, has said she wants to see more women on the police force. The most recent city data show women officers make up 15 percent of the force.

A 2008 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts that at about average for U.S. police departments with more than 100 officers. Women make up 11 percent of the state's 10,000 licensed law enforcement officers, according to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

Nasset, president of the Minnesota Association of Women Police, said she favors seeing more women join police forces, but that won't guarantee great policing. She said gender and racial diversity among the ranks is crucial, but there are other factors departments should consider when hiring.

"If you just start hiring women, the use of force isn't going to go down," she said. "I think maybe we need to start changing our hiring criteria because there's men out there too, that are just as compassionate and not wanting to get involved in fights first. They like to use their brains before their muscles."

In Minneapolis, police department leaders and city elected officials believe body cameras will help reduce incidents where officers use force ranging from physical restraint all the way to use of firearms. In addition to using cameras, some police leaders are focusing on training officers to do more to calm potentially volatile situations.

Nasset said some women are just as willing as men to get into fights, but she said they are pretty rare.

The perception that officers have to be big, tough and aggressive, Nasset said, can discourage more women from wanting to become police officers. But she said use of force is a very small part of police work.