The Costly Police Gender Gap

Women’s History Month is drawing to a close and as if on cue, we saw another example of why paying attention to gender matters, and how for the most part we still don’t do it.

In their blistering review of the Ferguson Police Department, Justice Department investigators reported that racism was pervasive, along with a longstanding practice of ignoring allegations of racial discrimination and abuse. The statistic that got the most gasps was that in a city where two-thirds of residents are African American, just four out of Ferguson’s 54 commissioned officers are black.

Lack of diversity dominated the coverage and rightly so, but investigators also found evidence of another problem: rampant sexual harassment and gender bias. Ferguson, whose population is 58.6 percent female has four female officers too. That detail shows up in a footnote.

As the Washington Post which caught the footnote reported, stark gender imbalance is the norm for the overwhelming majority of local police forces, even though twenty years of research shows that women police officers tend to rely less on physical force and far less frequently get involved in misconduct lawsuits.

Way back in 2000, a study released by the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Center for Women & Policing documented a huge gender gap in police brutality lawsuits, and it’s costly.

In the 1990s, reported the study, the City of Los Angeles paid out $63.4 million in lawsuits involving male officers for use of excessive force, sexual assault, and domestic violence. By contrast, LA coughed up just $2.8 million for female officers for use of excessive force, and not one female officer was named as a defendant in a sexual assault or domestic violence lawsuits.

As cases of abuse continue, racial discrimination will stay in the headlines as it should, but police patriarchy deserves more than a footnote. Will a diverse police department solve all our problems – surely not – but if we’re going to address diversity, let’s remember there’s more than one sort. The evidence suggests that shrinking that gender gap just might save both lives and money.