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The Unique Value of Women Officers

Research shows that gender diversity can help improve law enforcement agencies, and the 30×30 Initiative is working to make it happen.

A woman hugs a Winthrop Police Officer during a vigil held for two shooting victims on July 1, 2021 in Winthrop, Massachusetts. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

In January 2021, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston promoted Susan Cotter, a 31-year veteran, to major of the patrol bureau. Cotter had joined the sheriff’s office in 1991, first working at the jail, then as a drill instructor, patrol deputy, accident- and auto-theft investigator, and instructor. Her new role as patrol major made her the first woman to fill the position since the sheriff’s office was founded in 1837. Now, she is one of two women working in the 14 sworn officer leadership positions.

Women can do the job just like a male officer can do the job,” Cotter said. And sometimes we just offer a different perspective, perhaps, than a male officer might offer.”

It’s that different perspective — one geared toward compassion, adaptation, and de-escalation — that has formed the basis of the 30×30 Initiative, a coalition of police leaders, scholars, and professional organizations that are working to encourage police departments to fill their rosters with 30% women by 2030. Currently, just 12% of sworn officers in the U.S. are women, and only 3% are in leadership roles. 


Proportion of sworn officers in the U.S. who are women. Just 3% are in leadership roles.

Since the program’s launch last year, 160 law enforcement agencies have signed pledges in support, including major agencies such as the New York City Police Department, New Orleans Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Arnold Ventures in March 2022 awarded more than $325,000 in grant funding for technical assistance to help agencies meet their 30×30 goals. We’re particularly interested in the promise it seems to hold in terms of its ability to address long-standing issues around the use of force, and trust, and to address community safety,” said Marc Krupanski, director of policing at Arnold Ventures.

Bringing more women into law enforcement helps ensure that agencies better reflect the communities they’re sworn to protect and serve, but the benefits extend beyond improved diversity. Research finds that adding women improves policing.

A Pew Research Center survey found that women officers are less likely to pull out their weapons and less likely to pursue aggressive tactics. Another study by the National Center for Women and Policing found that women officers are less likely to be named in a lawsuit or citizen complaint, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. A 2017 study said that female officers could make it easier for law enforcement to adapt to changes necessitated by cultural shifts. And researchers have found that women officers achieve better outcomes for crime victims, especially those who are victims of sexual assault.

As cities, states and the federal government debate the proper role of policing, there is strong reason to believe that women make for safer and less violent law enforcement officers,” wrote Nikki Smith-Kea, a Stoneleigh Fellow with the Philadelphia Police Department and former Arnold Ventures criminal justice manager, in a Crime Report op-ed.

The Unique Value of Women Officers’

The seeds of the 30×30 Initiative were planted in 2018. Former Chief Ivonne Roman from the Newark Police Department approached Maureen McGough, who was working in research and development at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice says it cares about research and evidence,” McGough said Roman told her. But there’s all of this research out there about the unique value of women officers […]and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”

The pair joined forces, hosting a national summit together at the end of the year that brought together more than 100 members of law enforcement so researchers could better understand what they knew about women in policing, and what they needed to find out. Researchers walked away with more than a dozen recommendations. Some attendees said that departments needed to get rid of masculine stereotypes in recruiting and training and instead embrace a culture that valued building relationships with community members. Others said there was a need for more role models for women who enter the force.

Motivated by the findings, McGough decided to join the New York University Policing Project and start the 30×30 Initiative. To join the initiative, partner police agencies are required to sign a pledge that involves a few low-cost actions that they can take to hire more women. These include collecting data on the genders of new recruits, sworn officers, and those in leadership positions; creating zero tolerance policies for discrimination and harassment; and, formally making hiring and retaining women part of the agency’s strategic goals. The pledge also requires that officials adopt policies unique to women such as creating a nursing room for new mothers who have recently returned to work.

At first, McGough worried whether agencies would sign the pledge. It felt like we were in high school throwing a party, and we weren’t sure if anybody was gonna show up,” she recalled. But the project swiftly proved to be a success, piling up signatures from more than 70 departments in the first few weeks. These new partners were located across the country, ranging from campus police to rural sheriff’s offices to large metropolitan law enforcement agencies.

Being a 30×30 Member

After a department signs on, it gains access to a web of support from those involved in 30×30. The organization puts on monthly webinars, releases newsletters with tips on best practices, and connects departments to one another. Agencies are expected to report their data every six months so 30×30 staff can provide vital feedback on how to address any issues. The initiative will soon begin to offer technical support to partner law enforcement that will help them collect and analyze data to grow the number of women in the ranks.

I think the greatest value of this, which I did not anticipate, is giving agencies a reason to prioritize this and cover to do so,” said McGough. A lot of people have said, we’ve cared about this for a long time, but we just lacked the roadmap to do it.’”

There is such a strong evidence base showing women have a unique value in these areas that we care about at this moment in American policing. That’s why we’re advocating so hard. It’s not just about gender parity, it’s about public safety as well.
Maureen McGough 30x30 co-founder

In its first year, the 30×30 Initiative quadrupled its membership. McGough said she’s still collecting the first round of reports but so far they have been promising. The reported accomplishments range from enlisting more than 50 percent women in their cohorts to implementing new anti-discrimination policies.

We’re finally getting some traction, said McGough There is such a strong evidence base showing women have a unique value in these areas that we care about at this moment in American policing. That’s why we’re advocating so hard. It’s not just about gender parity, it’s about public safety as well.”

Adding Women To The Picture

With women making up 17% of its sworn officers, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office already sits above the national average. Still, they knew it wasn’t enough. In March 2021, leadership signed on to the 30×30 pledge. The hope was that adding more women would help improve relations with residents by, in part, increasing reliance on conversational approaches and de-escalation tactics rather than using force.

I’ve seen the research,” said Assistant Chief Mike Lee. That’s part of the change that we are aiming for here at the Sheriff’s Office — I think along with a lot of agencies across the country.”

So far, it has been easier to recruit women who already have jobs in law enforcement, Lee said. Roughly 44% of its hires in 2021 were female, but the county is still struggling to convince women who don’t have a background in policing to sign on. Lee said just 15% of the cadet recruiting class were women.

The agency is working to improve those numbers, starting with the creation of a women’s leadership committee. At its monthly meetings, the committee has focused on opportunities to create firsts” for women within the Sheriff’s Office. Those include a role in the motorcycle unit, two pilots, and of course, the promotion of Major Cotter.

We are making progress on our percentages. Is it fast enough for my liking? Probably not. But there’s more to it than just that. We’re also making headway in many other areas,” said Lee.

For Lee, embracing 30×30 is just one part of a larger effort to remake the image of policing and transform police culture. Part of this change means shifting away from recruiting material that focuses on the tactical aspects of the job and appeals to candidates with a warrior mentality. Instead, the department is focusing on attracting those with the mindset of a community peacekeeper — men and women who are compassionate, committed to community-oriented problem-solving, and protecting society’s most vulnerable.

Sometimes we’ve been our own worst enemy,” Lee said. We spend way too much time focused on the hard skills versus the soft skills, which results in sending new officers out there with the wrong mindset. And now our profession is going to have to work just as hard to reverse that approach.”

Recently, Lee was asked to approve photographs for a recruitment advertisement that would be plastered on a mall kiosk. The photographs depicted men dressed in SWAT gear — a scene that hardly reflected the reality of what recruits could expect on their daily shifts. Lee refused to give the green light, requesting that the photos be replaced with a more realistic representation of policing — and to make sure that they included women.