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A Nationwide Effort to Put More Women on the Force

Women make up only 12 percent of police officers nationwide. One initiative aims to triple that.

Woman police officer dances at a neighborhood gathering with two young girls
David Kidd
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

Jane Castor knows what a typical day for a police officer looks like. She served for 31 years in the Tampa, Fla., Police Department, including six as chief, before becoming mayor in 2019. She knows the most critical tool an officer brings to the job is not a gun or taser, but the ability to talk her way into — and out of — tense situations. “Your ability to communicate is the most important tool and the most important skill a police officer can have,” Castor says. “Ninety percent of what officers do every day is social work.”

That’s an important point for local leaders to keep in mind as they struggle to fill vacant police positions and build stronger community relations. Adventuresome perceptions of policing, and the macho culture that persists within many departments, were built by and for men. This weaves through the ways officers are recruited, assessed, onboarded and promoted.

The result: Women make up just 12 percent of police officers nationwide, and hold only 3 percent of police leadership positions.

Castor is embracing a national initiative to change this called 30x30. The idea is for departments to reach at least 30 percent of women in their recruit classes by 2030. “You have to have a force that mirrors the community,” Castor says. But representation is only one goal: : Studies indicate that women officers use less force and are perceived as more trustworthy and compassionate by diverse community members, and that women officers draw fewer community complaints and lawsuits.

The coalition of police leaders, researchers and professional organizations behind the 30x30 Initiative shares a list of dozens of actions departments can take to advance women in policing. Some are simple, such as making sure uniforms and bulletproof vests fit women’s bodies. Others are potentially more contentious, such as rethinking assessments that require candidates to be able to do things they may never do on the beat — scaling a five-foot wall, for example.

“The approach we’ve taken is to help agencies get accurate about the knowledge, skills and abilities associated with fair and effective policing,” says 30x30 co-founder Maureen Quinn McGough. “And when they get accurate, they’re naturally going to see an increase in women representation across the ranks.”

Police departments in more than 300 localities have signed the 30x30 pledge. One is San Diego, which earlier this year opened the nation’s first onsite child-care center at a police station. The center addresses a problem women frequently cite as a barrier: arranging child care during off-hour shifts.

The police union — which oversees the service as a benefit to members — hopes eventually to keep the center open from 5 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. “We know that child care disproportionately falls upon mothers,” says Mayor Todd Gloria. “And so we do see this as an incentive to inviting more women to consider a career in the San Diego Police Department.”

In Tampa, Castor recalls winning an argument with a police attorney who said pregnant female officers have to immediately come in off the street. She also pushed to set up a lactation room for nursing mothers so that they don’t have to pump breastmilk in the bathroom.

Although women today make up only 18 percent of Tampa’s force, more than one-third of new officers at a recent swearing-in were women.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.
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