EDMONDS — Police departments in Snohomish County severely underrepresent women, even as research shows they often make for better officers, according to a Daily Herald analysis.
Only one department, Edmonds, has one-third of its staff made up of women — counting both civilian employees and sworn officers. Most others hover around one-quarter. And only one out of 19 Mill Creek police department employees was a woman.
At the biggest agency, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, 22% of employees were women. Everett was just over 23%. Out of 15 hires last year in Everett, eight were women.
Women and girls make up about half of the county’s population, according to Census estimates.
“Wouldn’t it be outstanding to have 50% of our officers be women, since 50% of the population is women?” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin told the Herald. “So what do we need to do to recruit that so we can look like the community we’re serving?”
There are a lot of reasons for the continued underrepresentation, experts note. Those include an overemphasis on upper body strength that can disadvantage women in the hiring process; a police culture resisting the shift; and a lack of family-friendly policies. Another is the lack of women already in the field to show female applicants they can do it, too.
In Edmonds, police Cpl. Brittany Harris, who works in hiring for the department, said she has been treated like any other officer. Still, she sees a lot of hesitancy in prospective female candidates. They sometimes worry about the traditionally male-dominated workforce.
“If they walk into a department and all they see is a bunch of old white men, that’s not going to look the same to them,” she told the Herald.
But once a department hires more women, they can “see themselves there in that role,” Harris said. Notably, Edmonds is the only agency in the county with a female police chief. A woman also serves as one of the department’s assistant chiefs.
The Herald compiled police demographics via public records requests of every agency based in the county, except for Bothell, which straddles King and Snohomish counties. Most of the statistics were current as of Jan. 1. And the records include not just officers, but also civilian employees. Women are much more likely to be represented in those civilian jobs than patrol positions.
The same records also showed many departments are disproportionately white compared to the populations they cover.
The Herald’s reporting was spurred by an email.
“Please help our citizens to be heard and fairly represented,” a Herald reader wrote in December.
It was only a few decades ago that seeing women on patrol began to be more accepted. In 1968, the first two women were assigned to patrol alongside their male colleagues in the country. That followed federal legislation outlawing gender discrimination in public agencies, like police departments.
State Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, remembers his state trooper training class in 1975. It kicked off his 31 years with the Washington State Patrol and included the first female trooper cadets, Carol Pemberton and Cathy Swanson.
“They just brought a different approach to it,” said Lovick, who also served as Snohomish County sheriff. “I’m not saying that men are not compassionate, but they just had a more compassionate approach to policing. What I mean is … a more diverse agency could change the culture of policing.”
Last year, state patrol Chief John Batiste wrote that Swanson and Pemberton “pushed open a door that others would march through.” But within four months on the job, they quit, according to a news report. Reacting to the news, the chief at the time, Will Bachofner, said law enforcement was “no life for a young, married woman.”
Monica Alexander remembers her 23 years with state patrol fondly. She loved working with the community. But she recognizes it was probably easier for her male colleagues. Alexander had to approach leadership herself for a job as a soon-to-be single mother. Eventually, she also had to advocate for a promotion when no one else would.
“I find it to be all of our responsibility, not only to recruit, but to be able to retain and seek talent in everyone,” said Alexander, now the executive director of the state Criminal Justice Training Commission. “We have to take our blinders and our goggles off in order to do that.”
Some scholars expected more gender parity at this point, half a century into the push to increase the number of women in law enforcement. For example, just a few years after Swanson and Pemberton began and ended their patrol careers, police scholar Catherine Milton predicted half of all police officers would be women within a few decades. And yet the country remains far short of that goal.
In fact, the number of women in law enforcement has stagnated across the country. As of 2018, women made up less than 27% of all police department employees nationwide, according to federal data pulling from more than 13,000 agencies. Over 60% of civilian employees were women, but just 12.6% of all officers. And they constituted an even smaller portion of department leadership.
“It’s very fair to say we’ve reached a plateau,” said Dr. Cara Rabe-Hemp, an Illinois State University professor who researches policing and gender.
Snohomish County police agencies are not an exception when it comes to representation for women.
At the Washington State Patrol, women made up only about a third of all employees, according to an agency report submitted to lawmakers last November. As for commissioned troopers, only one in every ten was a woman.
Departments covering cities and counties with bigger populations were slightly more likely to have more women. And across the country, 27% of police department employees in suburban areas were women in 2018.
“A lot of what officers do is they’re coming in contact with people in crisis, people on their worst day,” said Franklin, the mayor of Everett. “And women might be able to relate to parts of our population, certainly 50% of our population, better. Considering if you’re in a crisis as a woman, you probably feel safer interacting with a woman.”
Some studies show, however, that women detectives may not be more sensitive or less aggressive than men in interactions with survivors. But another analysis found that a greater number of women in a police department is connected to higher reporting rates of sexual violence and higher clearance rates for those cases.
Some experts say increasing gender parity could lead to less police violence. One study out of Illinois State University found women were 27% less likely to use threats, physical restraints and other tactics in interactions with civilians, compared to their male colleagues.
“Empirically, we know that women are less likely to use excessive force against citizens, and this results in more peaceful citizen-police relationships,” said Rabe-Hemp, the author of that study.
Another study of traffic stops in Florida and North Carolina found women conducted searches at a much lower rate than men. Yet when they did conduct searches, they were still more likely to find contraband.
There’s an ongoing push nationwide to get more women into policing. The 30×30 Initiative aims to have 30% of police recruits be women by 2030. The Seattle and Tacoma police departments, as well as the state patrol, have committed to the initiative’s pledge to identify obstacles to advancing women in this field.
As the first woman elected mayor of Everett, Franklin has felt the importance of representation firsthand. Growing up, she didn’t know women could be mayors.
“Every image I ever saw, every person on TV, every book I read, it was an older white man who was the mayor. Go back and read all your children’s books, that’s what you’ll see,” she said. “So how in the world did I think that I could be mayor someday? I didn’t.”
And in her recruiting in Edmonds, Harris uses her experience to show applicants it’s possible to balance home and work lives. She was ready to get back to patrol, but when she told her bosses she was pregnant they were able to move her into a more accommodating position, addressing a concern of many women considering a police career.
If departments and the broader law enforcement culture can address these obstacles that keep women out, it could result in better policing, Rabe-Hemp argued.
“Having a diverse police force, one that’s representative of the communities that they have sworn to protect and to serve, is an advantage,” she said. “No doubt.”