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Hendon Publishing

Improve Operations by Recruiting Female Officers, Pt 2

A number of factors inhibit the agencies’ ability to recruit and retain female candidates.


Primarily these relate to concerns regarding the use of force, physical agility testing, and agencies’ organizational culture.


Ability to Use Physical Force

The public, and subsequently many candidates, have an unrealistic perception of the frequency and level of force used by officers. For those persons, their perception is their reality. The truth, however, is significantly different. Recent studies suggest that less than 2 percent of all police encounters result in a use of force.

The majority of those incidents involve responses at the lower end of the use of force continuum including officer presence and verbal commands. While the frequency officers utilize physical force is very low, the criticality to engage a suspect, utilize the appropriate level of force, and satisfactorily accomplish the task is extremely critical.


Still, the greatest concern of both administrators and female candidates is their ability to use physical force as well as male officers. One survey of 800 police executives by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) revealed “Physical/Confrontation/Size/Strength/Force” was their greatest concern regarding female officers.

Similarly, some female officers have also cited they were less confident in their ability to use physical force as compared with male officers. Despite this, a majority of incumbent female officers report they were as willing or more willing as their male counterparts to use non-deadly or deadly force.

Agencies seeking to attract female candidates must be able to persuasively articulate an accurate portrayal of how seldom officers are required to use physical force. In addition, they must provide extensive training to ensure both male and female officers are capable of using defensive techniques to protect themselves and effect an arrest.


Finally, the use of non-deadly weapons including batons, pepper spray, and electronic control weapons (ECW) such as Tasers should be highlighted as providing officers with a tactical advantage.


Physical Agility Exams

Law enforcement can be a physically challenging profession in which strength and endurance provide an officer involved in an encounter with an advantage. To identify those candidates who can successfully perform the required tasks, a variety of physical agility exams have been developed.


Unfortunately, the use of physical agility tests tends to have an adverse impact on female candidates. This is supported by the finding that in agencies with no physical agility exam, women represent 15.8 percent of the workforce compared with 10.9 percent for agencies with the exam, a 45 percent difference.

Some question the need for the exams when studies have found 14–40 percent percent of incumbent officers cannot pass their agency’s physical agility exam. Still, there is a legitimate need to ensure candidates can perform to an established level of physical ability. The real issue is which technique should be used to make these determinations.

Criterion valid exams require candidates to perform a variety of tasks that are ‘predictive’ of the individual’s ability to physically perform in the job. These exams typically include a variety of required tasks such as a specific number of push-ups/sit-ups, lifting a percentage of the candidate’s body weight, 300-yard sprint, and 1.5-mile run.

To help candidates improve their performance, many agencies post testing processes and performance standards so individuals can better prepare before the test. Others offer clinics to assist individuals’ efforts to prepare for and meet the established standard. It is important to note, the standard is not lowered. Rather, the agency assists candidates who possess the drive to join the agency to meet the established standard.

Content valid exams include job simulation activities of recognized ‘essential job functions.’ For example these tests commonly require candidates successfully perform a variety of tasks that may be performed on the job. Some of these may include exiting a patrol car from a seated position, run a short distance, scale a 4- to 6-foot wall, crawl under a porch, climb in a window, drag a mannequin a specified distance, place the mannequin face down and apply handcuffs behind its back.


These tests have ‘face’ validity since they simulate actual functions performed on the job. In addition, they tend to have lower adverse impact on female candidates. Because these tests evaluate ‘essential job functions,’ they comply with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

Other alternatives include the use of health assessments, eliminating physical agility test, or instituting a post-academy graduation exam. Having no test defeats the need to ensure the candidate can perform to a legitimate standard. The notion of testing candidates after they graduate from the academy is based upon the premise that most tasks on a physical agility assessment can be ‘taught’ with sufficient training.


This approach requires the agency to spend enormous resources hiring and training an individual, based upon the hope the candidate will be able to pass the physical exam. If the individual doesn’t, the agency will be forced to terminate a candidate who cannot or will not pass the test at the prescribed level. In the end, the agency will likely face potential lawsuits or be forced abandon the effort to enforce a legitimate standard.


Organizational Culture

A third area that adversely influences female candidates is the organizational culture of most agencies. An organization’s culture develops over time and is slow to change. Law enforcement agencies continue to be male-dominated and place emphasis on individuals’ raw physical abilities and presence.


In addition, many of the skills and competencies women bring to the job are not valued and sexual harassment continues to be a problem within these departments. Women are also more likely to be ‘pigeon-holed’ into positions such as crimes involving children or women.

Since there are fewer women in police organizations, female recruits are less likely to have female role models and mentors. Females also report they do not seek promotional opportunities because of issues related to tokenism, particularly “feeling isolated at work, being second-guessed by male colleagues, and experiencing differential treatment because of their sex.”

Other more subtle artifacts that suggest women are not recognized as equals include the issuance of uniforms and equipment that are not designed to accommodate female officers’ bodies. In other instances, job descriptions and department directives use gender specific terminology such as ‘policeman’ as opposed to gender neutral terms like police officer.

Continued reliance on strategies of the past is providing diminishing returns. To compete with other employers and address challenges of the 21


Century, police organizations must focus on recruiting, developing and retaining the best talent available. This will not occur until gender equality permeates the entire organization.

The next installment of this series will identify the factors and approaches essential to creating a positive environment for attracting, developing and retaining female officers.


Dwayne Orrick has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience. This includes chief of police in a medium-sized city and the rank of major in one of the nation’s largest sheriff’s departments. He can be contacted at

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2015

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