'We're on the right track.' Law enforcement agencies across NC pledge to increase women officers

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Monday, February 20, 2023
Police agencies across NC pledge to increase women officers
Dozens of police agencies across the country have made a commitment over the past few years to increase the representation of women in the field.

Dozens of police agencies across the country have made a commitment over the past few years to increase the representation of women in the field.

The nationwide initiative coined '30 x 30' aims to have women officers make up 30% of the departments' staff by 2030.

In North Carolina, eight agencies have signed the pledge from Fayetteville to New Bern to Charlotte.

"I didn't ever think I would be a police officer. I never thought I would want to be hands on the street with criminals," said Lt. Julie Little with the Raleigh Police Department. "I never really looked at it as something that would be a positive thing."

Little knew she wanted to make a difference but it wasn't until her first job after college that she started realizing how much of a positive impact she could make as an officer.

"I realized that there's a ton of opportunity to be positive and you're experiencing people are experiencing the worst day of their lives. And you have to be the ability to change that and to be that positive light in their life at that very moment," she said.

Sixteen years later she is part of the 12% of female officers within the Raleigh Police Department.

Raleigh is one of the North Carolina agencies that signed the '30 x 30' initiative. Currently, 81 of its sworn officers are women; a number that hasn't changed since 2019.

Other local agencies that signed the pledge are also not seeing a large uptick in their percentage of women officers.

The Durham Police Department has one of the highest percentages of females on its force at 16%. That percentage is the same as in 2019 before the agency signed the pledge, however, the number of female officers has dropped by 12 officers.

The Garner Police Department has increased its percentage of female officers by 2% since 2019 and women make up 11% of the agency.

The Fayetteville Police Department also signed the pledge but the agency was unable to provide ABC11 with data.

The Chapel Hill Police Department is another local agency that opted into the initiative but its percentage of females has hovered just above 11% for the last four years.

The town did recently name Celisa Lehew its first female police chief.

"It's really exciting. It's something that that I've always looked towards as a goal throughout my career and it's really important to have a women's perspective at the table. So I really look forward to mentoring those behind me," Lehew said.

She said looking back on her career she admits there were times she had to overcome barriers her male colleagues did not.

"You know, at the time, I would say no, because I didn't know any better, but I think that if I look back on it, yeah, there were times that perhaps I had to be a little louder, or infuse myself in conversations to make sure that I was heard," Lehew said.

She said while the department has not significantly increased its percentage of women on the force, they have made strides.

"This gave us an opportunity to really look at our recruiting habits and look through our application process with an equity lens and then really develop some ways that we can make sure that women are part of our department moving forward," Lehew said of the 30x30 pledge.

She said the department removed some things on its applications that may have intimated potential female candidates, and they started a mentoring program within their basic law enforcement training class.

Around 22% of the departments' cadets are females and when they are sworn in later this spring, it will pump the representation of female officers up to nearly 13%.

"I think we're on the right track. We just have to continue to really target our women audience and let them know what it means and what impact it has on us in these roles," Lehew said.

The 30 x 30 initiative highlights the importance of agencies sticking to this goal by pointing to numerous studies that show the positive impact female officers create.

Female officers are less likely to use force, make fewer discretionary arrests, are perceived to be more honest and compassionate, are named in fewer lawsuits and create better outcomes for crime victims, according to the 30 x 30 initiative.

"I think females definitely bring a different perspective to the job to the profession," Little said. "Females can bring certain things to the table that maybe our male counterparts can't."

Raleigh senior officer Donna Hicks is responsible for recruiting and said it's hard to find diverse applications. She said the concerns females have are often different than males she speaks to at recruiting events.

"The schedule, they are fearful of the 12-hour shifts, you know, staying away from kids, family obligations, raising kids, you know, there is a process to incorporating children with a schedule as we have," Hicks said.

Hicks said many departments like Raleigh do have resources to help lessen the impact on families.

For Hicks, it's important to continue to combat these concerns and misconceptions about serving as a female officer, because she knows firsthand the impact diverse representation can make.

"I've never met a Black female officer prior to coming here. So I didn't really see myself doing it," she admitted.

And having women in leadership roles is even more important. Currently, it is estimated just 3% of police leadership roles nationwide are held by women.

"It always helps to see a Black female in the field. Just like with the chief," Hicks said pointing to Raleigh Police Chief Estella Patterson. "I look at her and I'm in awe, and that's what kind of pushed me towards putting in for Sergeant because I'm actually in the sergeant's process and it motivates me."

Despite the positive impacts and desire to add more women to the force, this initiative comes as recruiting in general faces ongoing challenges.

Little admits tripling or doubling the percentage of female officers over the next seven years will be challenging.

"I think it's difficult, just in general right now to encourage people to want to join this profession. This profession has seen a lot in the past couple of years, specifically in the Raleigh Police Department; we've seen a lot of devastation," Little said. "I encourage any female out there that thinks that maybe this is something I might be interested in, she can do it."

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