As a young narc in the mid-‘80s, I was assigned to a training class called “Stress Reduction for Women Police.” Was I stressed? Heck no! I was living the life I’d always dreamed of. I had a great assignment, unlimited overtime, a take-home car, and every day was a new adventure in policing. But I’d never been to a “woman’s class” before, so being the good employee, I went where I was sent.
The class was taught by a female psychologist who assumed that all women in law enforcement were stressed out about things like encountering criminals, witnessing violence, and carrying a gun — you know, all the stuff that makes our job fun! I wrote a lengthy evaluation of the class and was invited to teach it with her a few months down the road.
That relationship never really worked out, and I went on to teach a class that turned into “Career Survival for Women in Law Enforcement.” For several years, I taught that class with a male partner to help dilute some of the suspicion about the class — many administrators in my area assumed that my partner and I were teaching women how to sue their agencies, how to receive special treatment, and so on. Little did they know we were teaching them to be thick-skinned leaders and warriors.
Ignoring differences between men and women in the police profession often stems from a misguided attempt to 'treat everyone equal'
Aren’t All Cops Equal?
In 2003, my husband Dave Smith and I developed a two-day officer survival class for women and took it on the market nationally. Although the class was extremely successful, we received some pushback from other trainers.
Why did women need a special class? Aren’t all cops equal? Again, there was an assumption that we were teaching women to be angry victims, not well-rounded crimefighters.
We now teach “The Winning Mind for Women” throughout the United States, and after every class at least half of the women say virtually the same thing: “I wish our department’s trainers knew the things you’re teaching!”
What is it that these women think is missing from their training programs? Here are a few sex differences to consider as a police trainer — male or female — to get the best out of your students:
We see differently. Men have better distance vision and depth perception, are usually more comfortable in lighted environments and are hard-wired to track moving targets. Women have better night vision, better peripheral vision, see colors in greater detail, and have better visual memory.
Women are more sensitive to sound, and can often be distracted by it. Women also have a more acute sense of smell.
Generally speaking, men are 10-15% larger than women and usually about 30% stronger in the upper body. A female hand has about 60-75% of the strength of the male hand and the female fingers tend to be about one knuckle-length shorter.
Women have fewer slow-twitch muscle fibers (the muscle cells that work best for endurance activities) than men, but the female’s higher percentage of body fat means they can supply fuel to their muscles longer than men.
Women tend to be more flexible, have a lower center of gravity and a powerful lower body. Women are more sensitive to physical pain but tend to manage it better because they have more complex endorphin and oxytocin responses.
Women tend to talk more than men, which can be a huge advantage when it comes to subject control. Most women cops have more than a few stories about talking an angry bad guy into handcuffs and into the back of their patrol car without having to go “hands-on” with them.
Females have a tendency to catch the emotions and facial expressions of other people, although males can generally inhibit their own expressions better than females, especially when cued to do so by circumstances.
Women make more eye contact than men, and they expect more eye contact from people in general. Very often, if you’re not making eye contact with a woman in conversation, she assumes you aren’t listening. Men tend to use and appreciate humor more than women — woman’s humor tends to be self-deprecating.
No One Size Fits All
These are just a few examples of the many differences between men and women. Each sex has advantages and disadvantages in law enforcement, and we need to understand these differences to optimize our training programs.
For example, the one-size-fits-all trend in duty firearms should be a relic of the past, but unfortunately I meet hundreds of women each year who are carrying a firearm that does not fit their hand because departmental policy mandates it.
Both sexes must have outstanding physical fighting skills, but as my friends and fellow trainers Sergeant Joseph “Little Joe” Ferrera and Lieutenant Kevin Dillon have been teaching for decades, defensive tactics programs designed specifically for smaller officers can be an excellent supplement to any agency’s standard DT program.
And as trainers, learning the vast differences between the way men and women communicate is essential to our success — and that of our students — in the classroom, on the mat, and in the range.
Male and female cops must absolutely be able to do the same job. Police training, like society, is not androgynous. We need to meld the talents of men and women into an effective whole. Law enforcement is truly a brotherhood — a family — and we are brothers and sisters. Police trainers have a great responsibility to be open-minded and properly informed so that they can give all of their students the best possible experience in the classroom, on the range, and in the DT room. The lives of our students depend on us.
We can make all the difference in the world.
About the author
Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.