Where Are the Women Police in Ferguson?

Images from Ferguson,Missouri, have filled TV and computer screens around the country since the tragic killing of Michael Brown bypolice officer Darren Wilson—everywhere we’ve looked we’ve seen vulnerability and anger, chaos and peaceful resistance, tragedy and triumph. But we couldn’t help but notice there seems to be one thing missing in the deluge of photos and videos: There are next to no women law enforcement officials on the streets of the St. Louis suburb.

We called the city’s police department and, according to a spokeswoman, just five of the city’s 53 police officers are women. Only three of the 53 are African American, in a town that’s 67 percent black.

This matters. Had more women been on the scene during the demonstrations following the 18 year old’s death, things might have looked very different.

“Women tend to talk, to reason, to try to deescalate violence,” Penny Harrington, former Portland chief of police and the first woman head of a major U.S. police department, told the Ms. Blog. By contrast, “men have been taught—through sports, through the military—that you use physical force to get situations under control. Those are two hugely different approaches.”

Harrington is right: Women police differently. A 2002 study by the National Center for Women and Policing—a program of the Feminist Majority Foundation that Harrington helped found—examined data from seven major U.S. police departments and found that, “The average male officer is over eight and a half times more likely than his female counterpart to have an allegation of excessive force sustained against him.”

If more women officers had been on hand during the Ferguson protests, we might have seen fewer rubber bullets fired and tear-gas canisters launched. Instead, there might have been a productive conversation between a community that’s deeply wounded and a police force that desperately needs to rebuild trust.