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As D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier Steps Down, A Look At Women's Role In Policing


The police chief of Washington, D.C., stepped down this summer after almost a decade on the job. Today, she takes up a new post in charge of security at the National Football League. The departure of Cathy Lanier from the D.C. force leaves just three female chiefs for the 25 largest cities in the United States. Jacob Fenston from member station WAMU reports on the role of women in the nation's police departments.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: A few months after Cathy Lanier was sworn in as police chief, there were rumors she'd be the focus of a new TV series. One article quoted a producer - here's a white woman in a man's world and an African-American world. The show never happened, but the fascination continued. Lanier has at times been the most popular leader in the city.


CATHY LANIER: I never thought I'd have the opportunity to be the chief in the nation's capital. Of course not.

FENSTON: That's Chief Lanier at a recent press conference announcing her retirement.


LANIER: When I started here in 1990, I had a ninth grade education, a GED. And over the past 26 years, I was able to work hard, get promoted and I now have two master's degrees, so I owe my life to this city.

FENSTON: Policing is still a profession dominated by men. Nationally, just 13 percent of cops are women and not all that long ago, within Cathy Lanier's lifetime, women weren't even allowed to become patrol officers.


FENSTON: Mary Ellen Abrecht is sifting through a box of old memos and clippings from D.C. newspapers...

ABRECHT: Well, look, the title.

FENSTON: ...Stories with headlines like "Lady In A Squad Car."

ABRECHT: Yeah, January '72.

FENSTON: Abrecht was one of D.C.'s first female patrol officers, and she coordinated what was in 1972 the nation's largest experiment - putting women on patrol, 100 women in uniform. It was sensational, she says.

ABRECHT: That was one sort of annoying part of being among the first in a new role is that you couldn't just do your job. I mean, the people that supported you wanted you to be superwoman and the people who were opposed to it were just waiting for you to fail.

NORMA ROMAN-CASTILLO: I had people telling me - peers - you guys don't belong here. You guys belong at home cooking (laughter) cooking, being housewives.

FENSTON: Norma Roman-Castillo joined D.C. police in 1986. It was a great job, she says, but women always had to prove themselves. She was thrilled when Cathy Lanier was tapped as chief.

ROMAN-CASTILLO: It was shocking. Wow, a female police chief. That was great, a great step for us females.

FENSTON: But a step that many departments have never taken. Nationally, just 3 percent of police chiefs are women, and that's a big problem, says Katherine Spillar. She's with the National Center for Women and Policing, a project of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

KATHERINE SPILLAR: Women tend to use a more community-oriented style of policing, are better communicators, can de-escalate potentially violent situations before they turn violent.

FENSTON: One study, for example, found female officers accounted for just 5 percent of excessive force complaints - a disproportionately low number.

SPILLAR: So women are exhibiting a very different style of policing.

DOROTHY MOSES SCHULZ: Those are the stereotypes that exist about women.

FENSTON: Dorothy Moses Schulz is author of a book about female chiefs called "Breaking The Brass Ceiling." She says she's seen the studies, but fewer complaints doesn't necessarily mean there are some inherent gender difference.

SCHULZ: Whether women all have better communication skills or are all better at de-escalating - I mean, those are basically sexist generalizations that there's no proof to.

FENSTON: But a woman in charge of a department where nearly 80 percent of officers are men, that does send a message and so does Cathy Lanier's new job at the National Football League.


LANIER: To women who think that there are limitations to what you can do and where you can work, the NFL reaching out to me for this position says that there are not limitations for where you can work.

FENSTON: When Chief Lanier turns in her badge today, she'll be heading from one man's world to another. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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