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When women make up half the population, it is striking that only 12% of the Honolulu Police Department’s force is female. That’s 220 women out of the department’s total of 1,850 officers.
The small percentage of women police officers in Honolulu is similar in larger cities across the country — where 12.6% of the cops are females.
Susan Ballard, the first woman police chief in HPD’s history, wants more females on the force.
“I would love 50% of the officers at HPD to be women,” she says.
But it’s difficult to get women to apply.
HPD is already understaffed with 286 officer vacancies. From Jan. 1 through September, HPD had to spend $10.7 million in overtime to cover officer shortages.
Staffing is at 85% but that’s maintained by paying overtime.
The police academy has 109 cadets in training to fill some of the vacancies but there is no guarantee all of them will graduate.
“The biggest difficulty recruiting women officers is people think you have to be like a big athletic guy,” Ballard says. “I am always trying to break that stereotype, not just in attracting women to the force but also men.”
“We are looking for everyday people like your neighbors,” she says. “Police officers come in all sizes and heights, anywhere from 4-foot-11 to 6-foot-11.”
Another factor adding to recruitment difficulties is the portrayal of police in TV crime dramas as superheroes who spend 90% of their time dodging bullets or zig-zagging through crowded city streets in high-speed car chases.
And TV portrayals of women police officers are even more daunting. Consider the beautiful detective Tani Rey in Hawaii Five-0 who is as thin as a rail but as muscular as a karate black belt holder and can shoot long distance more accurately than a Marine sniper scout.
“It’s not that way,” Ballard says. “I was the worst shot in the world. I thought I was going to fail the test. But with practice with a 9mm I got better.”
Ballard says most police work today is talking to people, more like being a social worker than a commando.
Officers are called by members of a household unable to resolve a family argument, or parents who can’t control a child or an elderly person who has fallen in her home and can’t get up.
There are also increasing encounters with Oahu’s homeless, helping them connect to housing providers or drug and mental health services.
She says women officers bring empathy, intelligence and communication skills needed for today’s policing challenges.
A prospective officer can start from scratch. “We will train you to be able to do what you need to do. You will get the skills in training.”
By the way, Ballard says her favorite TV cop show is “Blue Bloods” because of its authentic portrayal of the sometimes mundane challenges police officers face in their daily work.
In the past, life for women officers at HPD was much more difficult than today. In interviews, Ballard credits the late detective Lucile Abreu for her promotion. Abreu battled for equality for women for years, prevailing in a lawsuit in the 1970s that brought significant change.
When Abreu joined HPD in 1954, women were not allowed to become full-fledged police officers. They wore civilian clothes and were assigned to work in the Juvenile Crime Prevention Division in a separate building across the street from what was then HPD headquarters.
The requirements for women applicants were tougher than for men. Women had to have two years of college and three years’ experience working with children. Male applicants needed only to have gone to high school.
Abreu and the five or so other women on the force struggled to get promotions. Abreu passed the test for sergeant with high scores many times but she was never elevated in rank.
In 1972, she filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She prevailed in 1974 with a class action settlement.
Police Chief Francis Keala was told to hire women on an equal basis or the city would lose federal funding. The old police badges that said “patrolman” were changed to “officer” and the previous height requirement of 5-feet-8-inches was dropped.
In 1975, Abreu became HPD’s first female detective in the criminal investigation division and women began to apply to become regular uniformed police officers.
But their numbers were still small. When the initial three groups of female trainees made it through the academy, they made up only 1% of the total police force of 1,500 officers.
Former state lawmaker Annelle Amaral was among the first women to don a blue HPD uniform.
Amaral had been a lei greeter at the Honolulu airport when she was accepted into HPD’s second training class.
She built a 6-foot-high wooden wall in her Waialae-Kahala backyard where she practiced every day for six weeks in front of the fascinated neighborhood children who watched her run toward the wall again and again to try to get herself over it in order to pass the police agility test.
In those days, she said, it was difficult for a woman to gain respect. “We had to write more reports than male officers; we had to work much harder than they did to prove we could do the job.”
Amaral left the HPD in 1982, the same year the International Association of Women Police honored her with its highly prestigious police officer of the year award for her work in creating and directing HPD’s rape prevention program.
She said she needed to get out because it was clear in the male-dominated institution her career was stalled and she probably would never advance.
She accepted an appointment from then-Gov. George Ariyoshi to be the executive director of the Office of Affirmative Action.
Amaral looks back on her work as police officer with pride.
“Women bring a lack of ego to the job,” she says. “They listen carefully to figure out the nature of the problem and then work to find a solution. That’s the benefit you get from hiring women. They can make a difference. They do excellent work, damn it.”
Ballard thinks policing is a good job for both men and women. “You get to help people and you get a great retirement when you finish. And there is variety. You don’t have to do the same thing for 30 years. You can try patrol. And then, change to narcotics, or detective work. It keeps life exciting.”
Ballard’s advice to women thinking of applying? “Don’t be afraid. We can teach you all the skills you will need. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”
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