My friend Janet Davidson has won a fellowship to travel to Oxford University in England next month to study the fictionalized portrayal of women crime fighters on TV shows.
She will look at how the depiction of women law officers on TV squares with the reality in police departments and other law enforcement agencies.
Davidson is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Chaminade University
At Harris Manchester College at Oxford, she will do content analysis on 20 American crime shows and 20 British shows to see how women are portrayed as law enforcement professionals in both countries.
Davidson will look at how the fictionalized female crime fighters can help or hinder recruitment efforts to attract more women into law enforcement careers.
For example, if women crime fighters are overly sexualized or trivialized in TV series, she wonders if such portrayals hurt police departments’ recruitment.
“Anyone female or male who joins the department because of what they have seen on TV is probably in for a shock.” — Marie McCauley, Honolulu deputy police chief
Or if women police are presented on TV as mega-powerful, razor thin beauties holding their own in the middle of gun fights, will the women hired as police officers become disappointed after they discover that’s a myth and quit?
Criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind, who was Davidson’s professor at graduate school at UH Manoa, thinks the entertainment industry does a terrible job of representing female police officers.
“Women cops on TV are always young. They are not allowed to age or gain one ounce of weight. They fail to give young women a real sense of what it is like to work in a police department,” says Chesney-Lind.
To some critics, Davidson’s research on women TV cops might sound like a narrowly focused pursuit, but Davidson says looking at women officers on television is important because TV shows and movies are where most citizens get their impressions of policing.
As it stands now, gun-carrying law enforcement officers with arrest powers are overwhelmingly male. In America, only 13 percent of police officers are women. In Britain, it is slightly better at 19 percent.
But on many TV shows, women appear to make up a large percentage of crime fighting units. For example, on “Hawaii Five-0,” police officer Kono Kalakaua, played by actress Grace Park, works with four male detectives to solve crimes. This might imply that at least 20 percent of police units are female.
On the crime show “Castle,” the head of a New York police precinct homicide division is an attractive black woman who is the boss of a drop- dead-beautiful detective named Kate Beckett.
The gorgeous Beckett, married to a mystery book writer named Richard Castle, is the dominant figure in crime solving on the show as she directs two male homicide detectives to help her as she arrests killers each week.
Davison says in spite of the TV images “ The true picture is law enforcement is still a man’s culture in which women are grossly underrepresented. When we talk about police, we still say ‘the policeman’ or ‘policemen,’ “ she says.
She is right. I called the three local law enforcement agencies to ask how many gun-carrying women they have fighting crime.
Honolulu Police Department says 10 percent of its 2,000 police officers are female. The women on the force include one deputy chief, three majors, seven lieutenants, 32 detectives, 19 sergeants, 29 corporals and 124 officers.
Hawaii’s Public Safety Department says only 13 women — or about 4 percent of its 320 state sheriffs — are female.
“We always have a need for more women,” says Hawaii Public Safety spokesperson Toni Schwartz. She says if TV shows encourage more people to apply, that’s fine, but they have to understand that sheriffs don’t do all the fancy things women crime fighters do on TV
The FBI seems to fare a little better in Hawaii with 20 percent of its special agents being female.
Special Agent Tom Simon says in his seven years here, two of the special agents in charge of running the Honolulu Office have been women. Simon believes depictions of FBI agents on TV and movies help to encourage recruits.
He says that many female agents he trained with 20 years ago told him they were inspired to apply after seeing Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling, the brave young student at the FBI academy who faces off against cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Simon says, “I think the students — not just the women — in my class were deflated to learn that the FBI doesn’t deploy trainees to track down serial killers. “
Professor Davidson says when you consider that women make up 50 percent of the population, there should be more female law enforcement officers.
She says research consistently shows women officers are more likely to use their communication skills in potentially dangerous confrontations rather than lashing out physically as male officers often do, making women better at de-escalating the incidents. Women officers also rack up fewer allegations of misconduct.
Davidson says women are particularly valuable in community policing, in which authorities focus on identifying some of the deep-seated problems in particular neighborhoods that prompt criminal behavior rather than responding only after situations have spiraled out of control.
“Good community policing requires the kinds of communication skills women officers have to help encourage people in neighborhoods to talk to them and trust them,” says Davidson.
Nanci Kreidman, executive director of the Domestic Violence Action Center, says women police officers are also valuable when dealing with family violence cases.
“Women police officers often have a better understanding of what it is like to be afraid and powerless. Female victims tend to be more inclined to talk to a woman officer,” says Kreidman.
Each local law enforcement agency I spoke to says it is working hard to get more qualified females on board as well as promote qualified women to supervisory positions.
In an e-mail, HPD’s recruiting office says that in the last few years it has stepped up its efforts to increase the numbers of qualified women officers in order “to better represent our community in terms of race and gender.”
HPD says it reaches out to potential applicants at dozens of job fairs, schools and public events each year, always bringing along at least one female recruiting officer, sometimes two or more women officers.
“Good community policing requires the kinds of communication skills women officers have to help encourage people in neighborhoods to talk to them and trust them.” — Janet Davidson, Chaminade University professor of criminology
“We want to show the public that policing is a women’s job too,” HPD says.
HPD says it also faces the same challenge as large police departments on the mainland: getting more women to apply for supervisory positions.
“There are many qualified female officers who for various reasons choose not to apply for promotions particularly beyond the rank of detective or sergeant,” says HPD.
As part of its effort, HPD says it is interviewing its female officers to try to better understand what’s holding them back from applying for higher-ranking jobs.
Honolulu Deputy Police Chief Marie McCauley, HPD’s first female deputy chief, says childcare issues are probably the most common reason that female officers don’t seek higher jobs beyond the rank of sergeant or detective.
McCauley says what typically happens is a woman enters the department when she is single and in her 20s. But later, when she has a family she seeks the regularity of a Monday-Friday assignment with 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. working hours to allow her to care for children and spend time with them on weekends.
HPD might consider looking at what it can do to ease the child-care burdens on its women officers to make it more appealing for them to advance.
While the department may be eager to attract more women officers these days, that was not always the case.
In 1975, Annelle Amaral and four other women became Hawaii’s first regular police officers with the same responsibilities as male officers.
Amaral remembers being told by then-Police Chief Francis Keala that he never wanted women on the police force in the first place and if the women officers didn’t like their work, they knew where the door was and they could walk out.
That was after the five women officers went to see Keala to ask him why they were still walking beat patrols while months earlier their male counterparts had been moved up to car patrol duties.
Amaral says the chief was unsympathetic to the women officers from the very beginning.
She says when the first women applied to be officers, HPD created a new physical agility test with a 6-foot wall as part of the obstacle course.
Amaral says of the 60 men taking the test in her group, only two failed; and of the 60 women, only Amaral and one other woman passed.
Amaral says, “ It was pretty clear that the department put up the 6-foot wall to keep the women out.”
Chief Keala retired from HPD in April 1983. He still lives in Honolulu.
Women were allowed to become police officers only after police matron Lucille Abreu filed a complaint in 1972 about her limited advancement opportunities, which led to a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit successfully opened regular police work to women and also to men who had been unable to meet the then 5-foot 8-inch height requirement.
Deputy Chief McCauley, who joined he police department in 1981, also remembers her early years as a struggle.
“Initially the male officers did not see any value in having female officers as beat partners. In fact, they thought of us as a huge liability. They would say things like, ‘if there’s a fight, who’s going to have my back. Certainly not a female officer.’
“They didn’t think that females could handle themselves during a confrontation. Women recruits had to cut their hair short like men, and makeup, earrings and colored nail polish weren’t allowed in uniform.”
McCauley says as time went on, women proved they could hold their own in patrol duties and their colleagues realized there were different skills women brought to the table.
“Sometimes — but not always — talking or listening to people could help to diffuse a situation. Sometimes having a female officer talk to a female victim helped the victim gain the confidence needed to get out of a bad situation.
“And sometimes having a female officer work with a child victim could help that child muster the courage needed to identify the person who hurt him, “ says McCauley.
She says the portrayal of officers on TV and in the movies is unrealistic.
“Perfect makeup and jewelry while catching the bad guy and never being hurt by the bad guy. Anyone female or male who joins the department because of what they have seen on TV is probably in for a shock. The real everyday job is not at all like what is portrayed by actors.”
Amaral thinks the portrayal of officers in TV shows has improved since her days as a police officer in the 1970s when shows like “Charlie’s Angels” featured glamorous babe detectives in tight dresses. Unrealistic.
She likes the shows today that focus on the angst of being a cop.
I was thinking of the unrealistic portrayals myself when I watched Kono Kalakaua on “Hawaii Five-0” last week put on a skimpy bikini to go undercover to make contact with three female surfers who had just killed a business executive during an armed robbery they staged on a Waikiki tourist trolley bus.
Kono in her tight jeans and high-heeled boots is not only a thin, beautiful, champion surfer but also a skilled sniper who can fire a steady shot from a moving car to knock off a thug rushing to escape on the upper floors of a high-rise. Clearly not realistic.
Still, Amaral says it is not the unrealistic portrayal of cops on TV shows that is keeping women from wanting to join police departments. Instead, it’s police officers’ alleged abuses and killings of minority suspects on the mainland being reported with increasing frequency in the news media.
“Why would anyone want to be part of the great bully squad?” says Amaral.
And she says that’s too bad, “because despite it’s challenges, police work offers terrific pay for women without college educations.” Beginning pay for all Hawaii police officers is $54,924 a year.
Criminologist Davidson says she hopes her study will highlight what law enforcement agencies can do to welcome more women into their ranks.
She says with research consistently finding that women crime fighters are less likely than men to use force, it is possible a greater representation of women in law enforcement might reduce the illegitimate use of police force.
“It’s a question worth asking,” she says.
All of this is fodder for further consideration, as will be the findings the Chaminade professor turns up in her studies at Oxford.