- Special Projects
It is midnight in the heart of downtown Honolulu, and Stephanie Virardi is patrolling the streets, pulling over drunken-driving suspects and responding to domestic violence calls.
At home, her kids are asleep.
Virardi has been a patrol officer for less than two years. She is one of 220 female sworn officers in the the Honolulu Police Department, about 10 percent of the total 2,108.
That’s 2 percent lower than the national average, according to the HPD, and it’s a drop of 1 percent from the number mentioned in HPD’s 2012 Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) report.
In the report, HPD acknowledged that it wasn’t satisfied with the number of female officers and said that it would like to reach at least 12 percent.
“The agency has and will continue its aggressive efforts to recruit and retain female officers by attending conventions and events that are focused on women, providing information sessions, evaluating and maintaining proper fitness requirements,” HPD stated in the report.
Marie McCauley, HPD’s first-ever female deputy chief, also said the percentage is not high enough. “It’s lower than what we might want so we’re continuing our efforts” she said.
Diversity within HPD is important, said McCauley, and the empathy and compassion of women can be a great asset — sometimes just as important as the physical presence more typically associated with male officers.
“We try to recruit from a lot of qualified candidates to join the department, male and female. Though it is traditionally a male profession, we want to break it down so that people realize that it’s a calling and a career,” McCauley said.
This year alone, HPD has had representatives at 16 employment information events, including career fairs with Workforce Hawaii and the Leeward Job Fair on the University of Hawaii West Oahu Campus. In 2014, HPD has also visited Hawaii Pacific University, BYU Hawaii, Chaminade University, Remington College, Windward Community College, Leeward Community College, Heald College and McKinley High School.
The department also holds informational sessions to talk with those interested in joining the force.
Virardi wasn’t recruited. She said she always knew she wanted to be a cop. She moved from San Francisco to Oahu about 10 years ago and started a family. When her kids were old enough to go to school, she applied to HPD.
“My kids were born here, they’re growing up here, they go to school here, we own a house here, we set down our roots here,” Virardi said. “I think having my kids here really pushed me to become a police officer and realize my childhood dream. I just wanted to learn everything I can to keep them safe.”
The application process was extensive, said Virardi, with 13 stages including a civil service test, several psychological assessments, a physical fitness test and a lie detector test. She was accepted into the police academy in January 2013 along with 50 other would-be officers, seven of whom were women. When she graduated in June 2013, she was one of six women to make the cut.
Virardi was 30 when she joined the department and in her less than two years with HPD, she has attended three job fairs representing HPD. She answers questions, shares her experiences and tries to convey that it takes “all types” to make a police department.
“When you have both genders represented then it makes for a dynamic, creative workforce that benefits both the department and the community.” — Laura Renenger, Women’s Leadership Institute
Exactly what “types” make up HPD can be found in the demographics of a report by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a nonprofit national accreditation program for law enforcement agencies that aims to assess and strengthen management practices, improve the effectiveness of the law enforcement agency and ensure there are fair and nondiscriminatory personnel practices. The report comes out every three years.
Besides gender, the 2012 CALEA report details the racial breakdown of HPD’s force. Sworn officers of Asian descent make up the largest percentage at 34 percent, followed by Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders at 27 percent and Caucasians at 16 percent. Officers of American Indian/Alaska Native descent make up the smallest percentage at approximately 1 percent.
In a statement on its website, HPD says it “is pursuing accreditation to improve the administration of law enforcement services to the citizens of the City and County of Honolulu, the employees of the HPD, and the community as a whole.”
Laura Renenger, a project coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), a new program under the International Association of Chiefs of Police that is geared toward women in law enforcement, said women have a lot to offer as police officers, often excelling in collaboration, creativity and empathy.
“Both genders bring strong skills but they are sometimes different skill sets, so when you have both genders represented then it makes for a dynamic, creative workforce that benefits both the department and the community,” Renenger said.
While 12 percent of cops nationally are female, the percentage of women at the levels of assistant chief, deputy chief and chief is much lower. The institute aims to enhance female officers’ leadership skills through academic study and workshops to help them ascend the ranks.
“I don’t know why I didn’t run away crying and quit to be honest with you, it was crazy like that.” — Deputy Chief Marie McCauley
McCauley has risen higher than any other woman in HPD history. She says hard work, perseverance and a “forward-thinking” chief of police helped her become successful.
“There is a way to ascend the ranks if you work hard, and if this is something you want, then it’s attainable,” McCauley said.
McCauley joined the HPD 33 years ago in the same position Virardi is in now. Like Virardi, she was not recruited, saying that she knew she wanted to be a police officer since she was 5. She moved from Boston to Oahu at age 26 and got a job at HPD.
That was in 1981 and McCauley said things were quite different then. Male officers explicitly expressed their displeasure with having women working alongside them.
“I’ve been in for 33 years and when I first came in the men did not want any women in the department, they made it quite clear,” McCauley said. “It was a lot tougher at that time.”
In 1972 Congress passed an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that made it illegal for employers to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of race, color, religions, sex or national origin.
Three years later, in 1975, the Honolulu Police badge was changed to reflect “officer” instead of “policeman” when the first female patrol officers — Barbara Wong and Debbie Tandal — joined HPD.
When McCauley joined the department six years later, she said there was still a belief that women didn’t belong.
“I don’t know why I didn’t run away crying and quit to be honest with you, it was crazy like that,” McCauley said. “But after a while the male officers realized that, ‘Oh wow, she’s doing her job, she’s holding her own, she’s responding to fights with me and watching my back,’ and it evolved.”
Although McCauley says things have gotten better, women still make up only a small percentage of police around the country.
The San Diego Police Department has 1,871 sworn officers, of which 286 are female — approximately 15 percent. The Boston Police Department has 2,112 sworn officers, of which 284 are female — 13.4 percent. And the Denver Police Department has 1,410 sworn officers, of which 155 are female — about 11 percent.
Even at 10 percent, HPD does have a higher percentage of female officers than departments on the neighbor islands.
Both the Hawaii County and Kauai County police departments report 6 percent of their force are female. In Hawaii County, 28 of 425 sworn officers are women; in Kauai County, it’s nine out of 151. Maui County is a little higher at 8 percent (22 out of 275 officers).
McCauley says that there is a lingering misconception that police officers should be big and aggressive.
“I don’t think a lot of women see themselves in that role. Some think you need to be this big, muscle-bound gorilla to be able to handle the streets, but there’s a lot of times when the empathy and compassion of women are just as important.”
Take Virardi, for instance.
At 5 feet tall and less than 120 pounds, Virardi says she’s proof that that the tough-guy stereotype is changing.
“I didn’t have any military background, I wasn’t an EMT or anything like that, I didn’t play sports in high school, I’m not a big brawny guy,” Virardi said.
“It can be tough to balance work with sleep and family and making time to work out and stay in shape.” — Officer Stephanie Virardi
Virardi does acknowledge that size is a factor, albeit not a completely limiting one.
“It doesn’t matter how big and brawny you are, though that does help sometimes,” she said.
Virardi works the midnight shift in Kalihi, from 10 in the evening to 7 in the morning. During the day, she sleeps and tries to exercise to keep fit.
“It can be tough to balance work with sleep and family and making time to work out and stay in shape,” Virardi said.
Shift assignments are based in part on seniority. Virardi, with less than two years in the department, didn’t really have a say as to which shift she was on. For some women, especially those with young children, the night time shifts can be tough.
“A lot of times the newer guys and women will go to third watch, which is 3 to 11, which is the prime time of when you want to be home with the kids,” McCauley said.
McCauley is a single mom and says that she understands that desire, but she wants women to know that they can be both police officers and mothers.
“Hopefully I’m a role model for other women who think they can’t do it on their own; they can do it on their own,” McCauley said.