Women in Policing: The Elephant in the Room.
“This is a man’s world, choose your side.”
It was my first official shift. Sitting in a patrol car, ready to take a call—to press the mic and declare “10-8”— was the moment I had been waiting for. It didn’t matter I still had to prove myself to the field trainer seated next to me, it was the culmination of almost five years of planning, training and learning and I could barely contain myself. I was filled with expectation and flooded with relief that I had finally made it. I was a cop and I was damn proud.
As my trainer maneuvered the Crown Victoria out from under the Cambie Street bridge I slowly digested the talk we had just moments before. Within the sacred confines of the squad car he told me that I was his first female recruit. He added that he would be fair, and that his guidance would be the same as for any other new member. Despite this, he followed his promise with a story that was deliberate and careful so that I would not be mistaken. It was about another female member, one that had graduated some years before. She had a bad rep, he said. She was lazy. No sense of officer safety or care for those she worked with. I listened with held breath, frozen into position. Know that you are being watched, judged and evaluated. Do your job, be proactive, and get in there when the call becomes physical. If you need to lay hands on somebody do it! The message was clear: don’t be her. But the underlying one could easily have been translated as: this is a man’s world, choose your side.
My thoughts spiralled with fear and doubt, then dove into the only available conclusion. I couldn’t just be good, I had to be excellent and far beyond reproach. Even though there were other female members who were accomplished and admirable cops, I felt that women like those represented in his story tainted our gender. I gave no thought to questioning my trainer’s judgments or his covert messaging but immediately did as he suggested, I chose my side.
In 1996, the year I graduated from the Academy, only 12% of the VPD was female. I had observed the imbalance long before I was sworn in but I was not prepared for the tightly calibrated measuring stick that was to be my constant companion. From my trainer’s words, I knew my mistakes would be highly scrutinized and that I had to go above and beyond to prove I was worthy. That was obvious. What I didn’t realize was that it wouldn’t be just the male members that would dissect my every move. My female colleagues were standing beside them with eyes that were equally evaluative.
This is not to give the impression that we didn’t look out for one another, it was more that if women were to survive in this field we needed to be better than men in all respects. It wouldn’t matter, for example, if we excelled at surveillance, community relations, or investigations, we also had to be on par physically. More importantly, if one of us failed, the impact would be felt by all. It was as if our actions were judged collectively. New male recruits also had to prove themselves but not to the same lengths or with the same scrutiny. Moreover, the implied message, especially in a group, was to be one of the guys. Traditional feminine traits that centred around relationship, feelings and connection were, at least at that time, antithetical to police culture. Back then there were still too many officers who felt women shouldn’t be cops and those that did manage to join the ranks had better stay in line.
These officers were not alone in their misogyny. Civilians would regularly question the idea that they actually allowed two police women to ride together and once, when my female partner and I arrived at the scene of a robbery call, the victim refused our help and demanded to see a male officer. Then again, this should not be surprising. Twenty-five years prior, in 1973, women weren’t even allowed to carry firearms. We had come a long way but we were still far from equal.
The bullying I endured was also gender based. These guys were of the club that didn’t believe women belonged in policing. On top of the constant insults and taking credit for work I had done there were mind games and physical intimidation. In my fourteen years on the force I also had my share of inappropriate comments and invitations for sex. Yes, there were supervisors and colleagues that were allies who empowered their female colleagues but most of these acts happened when no one else was around. You can’t go running to your supervisor with allegations of abuse without gaining a reputation for being too sensitive and not able to take a joke. The question is, what kind of a joke degrades and isolates?
In this regard, evidence suggests things haven’t changed much in twenty years. In 2018 the VPD asked members to fill out an employee job satisfaction survey covering the previous two-year period. Roughly 30% of the department responded. Of these 551 members, fifty-one officers and eighteen staff reported harassment related to race, gender, ancestry and sexual harassment, but only 20% reported the harassment. In response to why they didn’t report, “15 felt the VPD would take ineffective or no action, 14 felt that submitting a complaint would ruin their reputation or career, or result in retaliation, five respondents’ comments were themed under ‘other’ and three felt their complaint would not remain confidential”.1 It’s also interesting to note that although this report was from a limited sample, in that same year, only 26% of the force were women but just under half the respondents in the study were women.
Back as a recruit, I expected the playing field to be even. All I wanted was to be judged for my ability as a cop, to be respected for my skills and valued for what I brought to the team. I wasn’t ashamed of being female but I also didn’t want it to be my primary identity. The police department, however, was just a reflection of the society it safeguarded: one of disparity, stereotyping and gender discrimination.
Looking back, some ten years after I resigned, I am grateful for the women I had the opportunity to work with. They were outstanding cops and good friends. That said, it is disheartening to know that we often had to act masculine to be accepted or even trusted. My hope is that as we grow as a culture and as our voices are heard from all levels of society, our differences will be seen as gifts. Women bring more than just their physical strength to the table, they bring empathy and relational skills, compassion and leadership. Modern policing is more than just about arresting the bad guy, it’s about communication, cooperation and emotional intelligence. This is not to say that men aren’t capable in these aspects but for generations, women have led the way in using these skills in community building.
At Anam Cara Farm and Learning Center, we have a herd of horses led by a mare. This is the way of horses and had been for eons. The mare leads with an understanding of team dynamics and a firm grasp of the characteristics and skills each member brings to the herd. Every horse is valued and trusted, to follow is just as important as to lead; to be the gentle mare as valued as the spirited stallion. Policing could take some lessons.