Police chiefs cite need for gender balance
By John Laidler
BOSTON, Mass. — Believing they need greater gender balance to address crime issues relating to women, two area police departments are actively seeking to expand the ranks of their female police officers.
Both Danvers and Peabody are pursuing civil service hiring options and stepped-up recruitment efforts to bring more women onto their forces.
"You try to reflect your community and the needs of your community," said Peabody Mayor Michael J. Bonfanti. "And we've seen very, very clearly that there is an imbalance here and that it needs to be fixed."
The Peabody Police Department, with three women among its force of roughly 96 full-time officers, last week asked the state's Human Resources Division to provide it with a pool of female applicants from which to select four new police reserves. The list would be composed of women who have passed the civil service exam and indicated their desire to become Peabody police officers. Peabody appoints full-time officers from its reserve ranks.
According to Police Chief Robert Champagne, of the 10 Peabody police reserves, only one is a woman, and she is deployed overseas with the military. Adding four more female reserve officers, he said, would greatly enhance the prospects of having more women appointed full-time officers. The department is not hiring now, but has a normal turnover of four to five officers a year.
The decision to more actively seek women to serve as police officers grew out of discussions between Champagne and Bonfanti last year.
"At least 50 percent or more of the population in Peabody is women, and they are more and more becoming active in committing crimes, as well as becoming victims of crimes," Champagne said.
"We want to have women here that might be able to better investigate crimes that would involve women on any number of issues," he said, noting that with specific crimes, particularly those that are sexual or related to domestic violence, "women tend to better relate to other women."
He said female officers could also serve as role models to younger women in the community, helping steer them away from potential criminal behavior and life hazards.
"And we think it's the right thing to do," he said of hiring more female officers.
Champagne said the city has made a more concerted effort in recent years to recruit women, including through outreach at high school and college job fairs. While those efforts will continue, he said, "We felt we needed do a little more," prompting the decision to seek the civil service list.
Danvers began actively working to increase its numbers of female officers at the time it was reaccredited by a national organization two years ago, according to Police Chief Neil Oullette. At the time, just two, or 4 percent, of the 47 officers on the Danvers force were women. Danvers was told that, to maintain its voluntary accreditation, it would need to put in place a plan to meet a national standard of 14 percent women on the force.
Oullette said Captain Edmund Plamowski initiated a plan that included outreach to women at high school and college career days and the creation of a DVD that was run on the town's cable-access channel. Then last fall, after a third female officer joined the department, the town obtained from the state a pool of female applicants from which it appointed three reserve officers (at the time there were no female reserve officers).
In January, when the department had two openings, it appointed one of the female reserves, Ashley Berube, and a male reserve, Graig LeBrun. Once Berube officially starts -- she and LeBrun completed a police academy July 13 and are undergoing eight weeks of departmental training -- the ranks of women in the department will have risen to 8 percent, the highest figure the department has reached.
Like Champagne, Oullette sees a value to a more gender-diverse department.
"If you look statistically," he said, "we are seeing more and more females being arrested, being involved in serious, violent crimes." He said that has created a need for more female officers to conduct searches of suspects in the field and to take part in their care and custody at the station.
Oullette said female officers at times are also better able to defuse certain situations, such as those involving disputes, children, or sexual assaults.
Welcoming the efforts to hire more female officers is Candace Waldron, executive director of Help for Abused Women and their Children, a Salem-based agency that provides a comprehensive array of services for victims of domestic abuse.
Waldron said many male officers are sensitive to the needs of women who are victims of domestic violence. But she said female victims generally feel "a female officer is going to be someone that is going to be more understanding. And they are more apt to tell details of what happened to a female officer. They may not want to go into details of a sexual assault with a male officer."
She said female officers also tend to come to the job with a baseline of information about domestic violence that men may not have. "It's almost as if, as a female in the general population, you know violence against women is an issue," she said.
And Waldron, noting the value also of racial and ethnic diversity within a department, said: "You want any kind of force charged with public safety to reflect the community it is protecting. Otherwise, there are going to be issues of trust in the community."
Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe
In Boston, female recruits are in demand