By Matthew Kredell
Three groundbreaking women spoke about their efforts to change the culture of law enforcement in Los Angeles at a January event organized by the Safe Communities Institute at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Prof. Erroll Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute, moderated a panel discussion with USC Department of Public Safety Assistant Chief Alma Burke, LAPD Sergeant and first female SWAT member Jennifer Grasso, and pioneering police woman Helen Kidder, a retired LAPD Lieutenant. Burke and Grasso are graduates of USC Price’s Master of Executive Leadership program.
Prior to the discussion, attendees watched the short film “Breaking and Entering: Women of the LAPD” directed by Eleanor Blake, a master’s student in film and television production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Grasso and Kidder are interviewed in the piece.
USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott began the proceedings by noting that it wasn’t until 1972 that police departments were required to hire women on an equal basis with men after an amendment to the Civil Rights Act prohibited state and local governments from discriminating on the basis of gender.
He added that this change clearly has resulted in law enforcement agencies that are much better situation to protect and serve our communities. However, the percentage of women in police departments across the nation remains low at 12%, with the LAPD leading the way at 18%.
“That’s not good enough,” Knott said. “We have a long way to go. So that’s why I say there’s a crack in the glass ceiling. It may be broken but it’s not shattered, and that’s what we need to do.”
Following an introduction from USC Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas, Southers led the women on a discussion of their illustrious careers, the unique perspectives women bring to law enforcement, the advice they would give to women interested in pursuing such a career, and how police departments can continue to improve and be supportive of female officers.
To start, the women provided their perspectives on why they think more women aren’t interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement.
“Law enforcement officers are killed on a daily basis in this country and I think, as women, the way that we’re raised and the things we’re exposed to as children and young women, that’s not exactly something that we’re going to gravitate towards,” Grasso said. “Also, it’s challenging being the only women in the room, and there is this kind of testosterone-driven attitude in law enforcement. Sometimes, frankly, women don’t want to put up with that, and I get it.”
Burke added that some women feel they aren’t capable physically or mentally to face the difficult circumstances officers encounter on a daily basis.
“I’ve heard that several times and when I’ve challenged them to say you are capable, you are willing and you have heart, it seems to give them that push,” Burke said.
Kidder began her career in 1968 as a “police woman” whose uniform required her to wear a skirt. She went on to be the first woman from the LAPD to be selected to go to the FBI National Academy. Her career as a detective along with partner Peggy York was the basis for the 1980s television series Cagney & Lacey.
When she worked as a recruiter for the LAPD, Kidder said she would let women know all the options they have in working at a police department, and that it’s not just working patrol.
“There are myriad of things to do, particularly in a large department like this,” Kidder said. “I think most women don’t realize what is available to them, what they can do and where they can go, and what they can contribute sometimes.”
Grasso noted that she’s always said that you have to do twice the work to get half the credit as a woman in law enforcement.
Burke agreed, saying your resume will arrive anywhere before you do.
“Women in policing are faced with that, I think, at a bigger stake,” Burke said. “I noticed working for the LAPD that not only was it difficult to get the assignment, but once I got the assignment I was told I had to prove myself every time.”
Grasso asserted that women play an important role in efforts to make the LAPD kinder and gentler.
“The big word in the LAPD now is deescalate,” Grasso said. “Because as women we don’t necessarily default to physical force – I certainly don’t want to fight a man twice my size – I might take that little extra time to be persuasive, to communicate, to try to have a breakthrough with this person to encourage them. As women, we tend to be better communicators in a lot of respects. And because force isn’t our go-to option all the time, although we can and we will, that’s not necessarily the first thing we want to do.”
She compared that to a young male officer who bench presses 325 pounds and wants to be challenged.
“In the modern-day era, I think there’s a place for women in law enforcement,” Grasso said. “I think we use force a lot less than men do, and I think in general our actions tend to be less abrasive for the most part. I would encourage anybody in this room who is considering a career in law enforcement, there is a place for you, especially in the LAPD. I understand why women are not attracted to it, but we need women.”
Grasso was the first, and still only, woman ever in LAPD SWAT.
“I felt like I was holding that place as long as I could waiting for my replacement, and unfortunately she never came and we’re still waiting,” Grasso said. “And I think there are people who would be perfectly content leaving it as is and I would just be kind of this dot on a radar.”
In other aspects of the LAPD, Grasso said there is at least one woman in every assignment, but that isn’t enough.
“One woman really is not diversity in an assignment,” Grasso said. “Until we can fill those roles at least to match the percentage of those of us who are on the department, I think it’s going to be a struggle. I think we need our male counterparts to support us and lift us up.”
Burke added that we need a woman as Chief of Police.
Even though the there is room for improvement, Kidder is encouraged by the ongoing progress she’s seen in the department.
“I think what’s happened since I retired in 1992, we have a lot of the same issues but I think we are recognizing them and attempting to do something about them,” Kidder said. “And we’re getting a different type of officer than we got in 1970. I think it’s going to take a while, but I think we’re absolutely going in the right direction and we are committed to making those changes.”
Professor of the Practice in National and Homeland Security
Director, Safe Communities Institute
Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies