Women on patrol: Why some choose to be "just a cop"

Certainly there are a lot of women found in administrative assignments and detective jobs, but why do some female officers willingly choose a career at the “bottom” of the rank structure?


I often ask other officers to tell me about their police career. The responses vary from “I was a detective.” to “I’m on the SWAT team.” Sadly, I also often hear: “I’m just a patrol officer.” 

I instantly focus on that statement because I don’t ever think you can say “just a” when referring to a position as a street cop. The flip side of that is that the majority of people who provide their oral resume tend to leave out the fact that they were patrol officers. It’s almost as if it is generally accepted that being a patrol officer is simply pre-requisite for something bigger or better. When did we stop finding it acceptable to make being a patrol officer a career? 

The phrase “just a” describes mediocrity, but being the supporting beam in a structure is not mediocre. I’d say it is pretty darn important.

Greatest Cop Ever
When I ask, “Who do you think of when I say ‘greatest cop ever?’” there’s surely an image of someone from your agency who immediately comes to mind (I can think of several).

What made them legendary? Was it the fact that they pounded out 30 years in a uniform without ever swearing at anyone? Was it the cop who could spot the one subject holding the heroin in a football stadium full of people? Maybe it was that guy who never ran a license plate that didn’t return stolen. Perhaps it was the woman who could read license plates in her rear view mirror or knew the name of every prostitute and drug dealer in the area. They are the ones you want to show up when chaos erupts. 

I visualized three cops who spent the overwhelming majority — if not all — their career at the “bottom” of the rank structure, on patrol. When describing any one of them, the phrase “just a” does not come into play. 

I remember thinking early on I didn’t want to do anything but be a street cop. I wanted to be legendary. Truth be told, I don’t like change. Remaining in the same division in the same assignment was comfortable. I saw people with a couple of years on the street taking tests, hitting desks and I thought they could not even possibly know “how to be cops” yet. 

Fast forward 15 years and I find myself looking around and listening to the resumes of others. People with less time on rattle off assignments and I start doing the math in my head. A year here, a year there… how does one become proficient? 

Each and every one of those cops who have diversified will be more qualified on paper than I will. Of course I start griping about the upwardly mobile and then it hits me: I am going to be working for them. They are going to know a bit about everything. 

A Gender Thing? 
Certainly there are a lot of women found in administrative assignments and detective jobs. There are a lot more men found on patrol when you look around. But why? The studies have been done — and Carl Jung laid out an understandable explanation. People take information in two ways: sensing and intuition. We then make decisions in two ways: thinking and feeling. 

Combining the types of cognitive styles, we figure out how people end up in the career paths that they do. In general, men use their senses and think like the mighty hunters in caveman time. Women use their feelings more and their intuition. 

Here’s another perspective: Many women choose to have children and that can pull them out of the patrol environment. There can be a real need to be home at a reasonable hour when you have small kids, and older children that get into sports and other activities. 

The fact that I have chosen to remain in patrol certainly contributes to why my children pray I don’t exit the car at school drop-off. The whole, “She didn’t get off work until 0300” doesn’t go very far when they’re trying to explain to their classmates why mom looks like a zombie with a bird’s nest on her head. 

I don’t have a right answer on what a person is supposed to do with their career. I can say for certain that if you use the word “just” when you describe yourself, maybe its time to do the following: 

1. Look in the mirror. Are you proud of who you see? Now show it.
2. Decide what is important. Work? Family? You can have it all. It is not likely to come all at once, because even Wonder Woman has to sleep. 
3. Develop a plan. Make it realistic. Be willing to modify your plan. Life happens and there are 24 hours in a day. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Occasionally one part of your life will have to take a passenger seat to the other. 
4. Be willing to fail. At some point, you will fail to get your laundry put away in order to go on that callout. 
5. Make a choice you can live with. Twenty-five years from now, your life is going to look very different. 

The one thing I know for sure, no child will ever describe you as “just a” police officer. 

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