Leaders say implementing policies, like paid maternity leave, could help bring more women to the force and improve policing overall.

Cpl. Carmel “Mel” Hurley has been a Honolulu police officer for 17 years and is a union board member, but she almost didn’t have such a long career.

Hurley put up with many challenges after having her first baby. She recalled going back to work as a new mother and having to use the bathroom at the Waikiki police station to pump breast milk.

“Ugh,” she said, as she recounted the story during a recent interview at the police academy in Waipahu, where she works now.

She gave birth to her second child in 2007, not long after graduating from the police academy.

“I stayed off the road for two weeks because I didn’t have maternity leave,” she said.

Then in 2015, she considered quitting after having her third child and running into problems with child care. But Hurley had wanted to be a police officer since she was a child and her sister was sexually assaulted. So she persisted.

Cpl. Carmel “Mel” Hurley had to overcome many challenges being a young mother and police officer at the same time, but she said her career has been rewarding and she encourages other women to consider careers in policing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Despite recruiting efforts, the Honolulu Police Department is struggling to attract and retain women on the force even though research shows departments with greater gender diversity have fewer citizen complaints, are better trusted by their communities and deal more adeptly with cases of sexual violence.

Despite the fact that women make great officers, many continue to face barriers, including departmental cultures that focus on men and policies that make it difficult to balance policing careers with family life.

Advocates say implementing family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave, child care support and access to lactation rooms, would bring more women to the force, which would not only ease overall staffing shortages but also lead to improved policing across the board.

“We understand that recruiting for different genders, it’s different,” said Honolulu Police Officer Shellene Ozaki, who works in recruitment. “Balancing career and family life, I think that’s one of the biggest things, and not losing your identity too as a female.”

‘Staffing Crisis’

The Honolulu Police Department has suffered from a staffing shortage in recent years. It currently has 407 vacancies — dozens more than it did last fall when 350 sworn positions were open. In June 2019, around 270 sworn positions were vacant.

Robert Cavaco, president of the state’s police union, said departments across the state are facing a “staffing crisis.”

Recruiting more women could help target the one of the roots of the problem — negative attitudes toward police that have worsened since the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Women officers use less excessive force, are named in fewer complaints and lawsuits and are generally perceived by members of the public as being more “honest and compassionate,” according to the 30×30 Initiative, a coalition of police leaders and researchers seeking to increase representation of women in policing nationwide to 30% by 2030.

That premise is supported by HPD figures. Only about 3% of disciplinary decisions finalized by the Honolulu Police Department over the last three years involved women, according to a review of disciplinary summaries submitted to the Legislature.

In one of the cases, a female officer was accused of pushing and injuring an individual during an altercation while she was off duty. She was later reinstated after her actions were deemed justified by an arbitrator, according to the summary.

Recruiting Challenges

Deeann Koanui, who retired from the Honolulu Police Department as a 33-year veteran in 2019, said she could only remember one shooting involving a female officer and one assault complaint against a female officer over the course of her career.

“Even though we’ve increased women in numbers, we’ve not increased in women in shootings,” she said.

Koanui retired after settling a lawsuit against the department in which she said she faced retaliation and harassment after former chief Susan Ballard, who was a major at the time, played a roll in altering some recruits’ test scores. Honolulu police spokeswoman Michelle Yu said at the time that the lawsuit had been “amicably resolved.”

Joneace Martin was the only woman in a class of 20 recruits who graduated from the Honolulu police academy in October. The previous two graduating classes each included two women. (Honolulu Police Department photo)

Honolulu has made efforts to recruit women, but their numbers have only inched forward.

Women made up 10% of sworn personnel in 2014, and they represent 13% today, according to data provided by the Honolulu Police Department. Women hold 240 out of 1,800 sworn positions. Ninety-four of those women are in leadership positions ranging from corporal to major.

The police academy’s latest round of graduates included one woman out of a class of 20. The previous two graduating classes each had two women.

Ballard, who was the first female chief in the history of the Honolulu Police Department, said in 2019 she’d like to see women in half of the department’s roles. But she retired in 2021 without accomplishing that goal.

The department has hosted two in-person women’s information sessions and one online since 2019, Ozaki said. At the last in-person event in July 2022, 72 women registered but only around 30 showed up. Very few women come to recruitment events that aren’t specifically targeted toward them, Ozaki said. 

When they do show up, Ozaki said their main concerns are usually about entering a male-dominated field and balancing work and family life. She also said the Honolulu Police Department is working to reach more potential female recruits by connecting with local high school and college women’s sports teams.

Still, the city has higher rates of women than departments on neighbor islands. Women make up about 9% of sworn personnel on the Big Island and Maui and 7% on Kauai, according to data provided by those departments.

Honolulu’s percentage is on par with local police departments nationally, where women represent 13% of full-time sworn officers, according to an August study from the Police Executive Research Forum.

Some departments, though, have stood out in their efforts to recruit women.

In Newark, California, which has a population of about 47,500 compared with Honolulu County’s 1.02 million, the police department reached its goal last year of having one-third of its officers be women. In San Diego, which has 1.3 million people, women make up 23% of the police force.

Others have implemented more attractive policies. Austin, Texas, began offering paid parental leave to public safety employees last year. Police officers in San Fransisco recently drew attention to their department’s lack of adequate lactation rooms. The San Diego Police Department plans to open the first child care center for police officers early next year.

‘Women, We’re Strong’ 

Women bring a special set of skills to police work, but many don’t even consider policing an option because they don’t see themselves represented, said Tanya Meisenholder, director of gender equity for the Policing Project at New York University School of Law.

“A lot of police departments will have these recruitment efforts really geared toward men,” she said. “Say they have some big husky guy jumping out of a helicopter when that’s not the reality of policing.” 

Honolulu police Sgt. Jennifer Bugarin said when she joined the department, she was a single mother to a 2-year-old son. She worked nights so she could spend time with her son in the mornings. She couldn’t afford child care, so she leaned on her mother for help. 

Very few women come to recruitment events that aren’t targeted specifically toward them, said Honolulu police Officer Shelley Ozaki, who organized the department’s first women’s information session in 2019. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Despite the difficulties, she knew she wanted to be a police officer so she could build a future for her son while pursuing a career that could make a difference. As a survivor of an abusive relationship, she felt she could have a special impact on victims of crime.

“Women, we’re strong,” she said. “I don’t know how I did it.” 

Need For Family-Friendly Policies

Experts say cultural shifts and policy changes can help attract more women to policing and motivate them to stay. 

Offering paid family leave, child care support and access to lactation rooms are all steps that can help make women feel welcome in police departments, said Kym Craven, executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives.  

“Having those makes it seem like someone belongs,” she said. 

Officers are entitled to unpaid parental leave but must use their sick and vacation time if they want to be paid while they’re out, she said. 

Yu said in an email that the department complies with the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which entitles employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child. The City and County of Honolulu also does not designate paid maternity leave, and employees can use their own sick and vacation time. 

“I love the excitement. I love the rush. But I love helping people, that’s the main thing.”

Police Cpl. Mel Hurley

Employers also are required to provide spaces “other than a bathroom” for lactating mothers who request accommodation, according to the Affordable Care Act. 

The Honolulu Police Department does not have “formally designated” lactation rooms, according to Yu, but “arrangements and accommodations are routinely made based on an employee’s work assignment.”

Hurley said being young in a male-dominated workplace, she didn’t know what rights she was entitled to. 

She put up with the circumstances until she had her third child in 2015. Her mom, who used to help watch her kids, had died, and her partner, who was also in law enforcement, worked long hours too.  

She took off three months, using all of the vacation and sick time she had accrued, but finally decided to go back to work after finding a trusted person to care for her daughter during the day. 

“I love my job,” she said. “I love the excitement. I love the rush. But I love helping people, that’s the main thing.”

A Sense Of Belonging

Female officers say they have unique qualities that make them more effective than their male counterparts in certain situations. 

Hurley recalled early in her career responding to a call about a young man standing on the ledge of the Executive Centre building in downtown Honolulu. She knew him because his mother had been addicted to drugs, and Hurley often went to his house to help him when he was a child. 

Another officer was already on scene trying to talk him down, but Hurley walked out on the ledge herself and spoke with him. 

Bugarin, who now works with Hurley at the police academy, credits her colleague for saving the young man’s life. 

“You connected with him, and the male officers couldn’t,” Bugarin said to Hurley. “I feel like that’s what we have as females, as mothers. We have that compassion and heart.” 

Honolulu police Sgt. Jennifer Bugarin struggled as a new mother at the department. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Meisenholder said incorporating issues that affect women into a department’s strategic plan can have an impact on all employees.

“I say women because we are about gender equity, but if you think about it, what we’re trying to do is make the workplace better for everyone,” she said.

Cavaco said in a statement that creating work environments where women feel “respected and appreciated” should be a priority.  

“(The union) is committed to working with our police, appointed and elected leaders on making our counties’ police departments places where women who want to dedicate themselves to serving others can work without feeling they need to choose between having a family or having a career,” he said.

Hurley’s message for women interested in becoming officers is the same one she has for one of her new female recruits currently training at the academy.

“I want to see you make it,” she said. “We have a lot of boys. I said to her, I want to see you make it through. Don’t quit.”

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