Across jurisdictions, police forces have long responded to controversy by recruiting from underrepresented and historically marginalized communities, in order both to improve trust within those communities and to improve police legitimacy in general. It is now the norm that police and security sector reform programs in the non-Western world include a gender element. The trend relates to transnational initiatives: The UN women, peace, and security agenda is associated with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which called on countries to address the impacts that conflict has on women and girls and to systematically include women in peace-building efforts. This agenda is multipronged, and includes a focus on making police forces more representative of the communities they serve, and thus more responsive, particularly on issues related to gender-based violence. As a result, whether in democracies or other political systems, in the United States, Europe, or any other region, gender is an important element of police reform efforts. 

In the UK, in the midst of a public conversation on discrimination and policing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a series of events and controversies led to a renewed focus on women and policing. Among the most notable: In February 2021, a London police officer raped and murdered a thirty-three year-old woman, Sarah Everard (after kidnapping her under the pretense of enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown). A separate scandal broke later in the year when racist and misogynistic messages between other London police officers came to light. These events ultimately led to the resignation of Cressida Dick, the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service (known as the Met), which serves London and is Britain’s largest police force. The city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, accused her of failing to deal with a culture of misogyny and racism. 

The series of scandals contributed to deepening distrust of the police in Britain. It also raised important questions about the recruitment of minorities and women to increase police legitimacy. If more women and Black police officers and leaders are supposed to enable a shift within policing culture and improve trust in police services, why do the same problems keep recurring? 

Naira: In the UK, there has been a lot of discussion of gender and policing over the past year, which I think was all the more focused because of the conversation about racism and policing. It was triggered after a serving London police officer, Wayne Couzens, kidnapped, raped, and murdered Sarah Everard in March 2021. And it turned out that Couzens had shown Everard his badge and told her he was arresting her for violating a COVID-19 lockdown. Understandably, women around London and beyond were deeply shaken by this crime. But the Met (the London police service) bungled aspects of the response, telling women that if they felt unsafe they could simply wave down a bus. They also cracked down on a vigil for Everard. This was a serious misjudgment of the public mood.

Floral tributes in May 2021, at a Clapham Common bandstand memorial to Sarah Everard, in London. Everard, thirty-three, of Brixton, was raped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, in March 2021. Source: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

That case raised questions about the policing of women and gendered violence. It also turned attention to the culture of the police force when it turned out that Couzens faced other accusations of indecent exposure that had not been investigated, was part of WhatsApp groups that shared racist and misogynistic messages, and—remarkably—had the nickname among colleagues of “the rapist.” Since the crime, there have been a series of investigations into the culture of the force. These investigations revealed the existence of WhatsApp groups where police officers repeatedly joked with each other about rape and domestic violence; had sexually explicit, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and otherwise demeaning conversations; and repeatedly mocked non-Christian religions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and people with disabilities, racism, and homophobia. According to a report released in January from the Independent Office for Police Conduct, those who reported misogyny, bullying, and harassment were “ostracised, harassed and humiliated,” and women were expected to “play the game,” stay quiet, or leave.

“In London’s Metropolitan Police Service, those who reported misogyny, bullying, and harassment were reportedly ostracized, harassed and humiliated. Women were expected to ‘play the game,’ stay quiet, or leave.”

Could you say a little about reforms to address both misogyny within police forces and the general conditions of female officers? 

Alex: What we hear from women police officers around the world is pretty consistent complaints about misogynistic work environments—things related to being discriminated against in promotions in work assignments, or being consistently subjected to sexist behavior by supervisors and fellow officers.

The situation in the UK is very interesting. There are officers who are complaining about misogynistic behavior toward them and members of the public in the station houses, even as the Met had its first female commissioner—who, of course, was forced to resign in February, in part for failing to address these issues of patriarchal systems and working practices within the police service. Just recently in the United States, the FBI launched an investigation of the New York Police Department for failing to provide adequate safe places for women employees to express breast milk (such spaces are required under federal law). Women officers have brought lawsuits about the failure of the New York Police Department to do this.

Built-in Patriarchy

Naira: Why do we see these recurring patterns?

Alex: Well, I think that there’s a larger truth here, which is that there are patriarchal and misogynistic elements that are built into the model. These elements are a byproduct of the structural nature of the institution of the police, which is about the mobilization of coercive force to establish social order. This structure is rooted in an authoritarian worldview, which says that the problems of society are rooted in moral failure and that these problems can only be corrected through the threat of violence and coercion. And those are the values of patriarchy that we see enacted in homes and businesses and in the community.

I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to make really meaningful changes in police forces. Partly, this is because institutions that are rooted in the mobilization of violence—whether it’s the army or the police—tend to be very insular and defensive. They feel that no one understands the dangers they face and the choices they have to make.

We live in these liberal democracies that tell us that violence is a problem to be avoided. And yet we have built up the police as a primary tool for managing social problems. It’s an inherent contradiction, and it means that police feel aggrieved—they’re doing what they’ve been told to do, and yet the public doesn’t like it. This makes them intolerant of criticism internally or externally. We sometimes hear it referred to as the “blue wall of silence”—the unspoken code that, as a police officer, you have to keep quiet in order not to undermine policing. That means Black officers shouldn’t complain about not getting promoted, and women officers shouldn’t complain about sexual harassment. 

Naira: Can it make a difference to have women in the leadership of policing?

Alex: It doesn’t seem like it. Take the case of the Met. Dick was in charge for a long time, and had been in charge of a lot of different units within the Met, and I don’t think we have too much to show for that. The number of female officers has increased, but the institutional impediments remain.

We’ve been told that if we could diversify leadership in terms of gender, as we’ve been told we can diversify in terms of race, that this would produce a different kind of policing. I don’t think we’ve seen that. Strategically, the basic undertaking and methods of policing remain unchanged. I think this is a result of the political imperatives that are set for police. To continue with the Met example, when the Home Office and the mayor of London tell the police that they’re in charge of the knife crime problem, then police are going to come up with police solutions: stop and search, more plainclothes units, more armed response units, and intensive criminalization of youth of color. The gender of management is essentially irrelevant in this kind of situation.

Naira: Is it similar for racial representation?

Alex: It’s even worse. Here, the evidence is starker. When it comes to individual officers on patrol, there is some evidence that female officers have better track records for use of force, and fewer citizen complaints. These are marginal improvements, but they’re documented in multiple studies. But there’s almost no evidence for improved racial diversity of the police having a comparable benefit. There are a few studies that show that, under very specific kinds of circumstances (which mostly can’t be replicated) there are some improvements in police conduct. But for the most part, the evidence hasn’t shown meaningful improvements in police conduct as a result of increased diversity.

Still, we don’t really have any reason to think that putting more women into leadership changes the fundamental political imperatives in which police have to operate—which, in my view, is what’s driving the harmful behavior.

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Seeking Legitimacy

Naira: In 2017, Dick was the most conservative of the contenders for the role of Met commissioner. Some people were surprised she was appointed—they expected someone more explicitly reformist. Still, her appointment was hailed as a landmark sign of progress, and she was widely heralded as the first woman and first openly gay commissioner of the Met. Is this something we see in other contexts—the use of representation to ward off reform?

“Police departments try to recruit from groups that have historically felt the brunt of police abuse—trying to tick those boxes—to try to restore some legitimacy.”

Alex: The hiring of Black police chiefs in the United States is driven almost entirely by the seeking of legitimacy, which is a core function of policing. Police actually expend a tremendous amount of energy on legitimacy seeking. Their press operations undertake massive cooperation campaigns with popular culture producers, and they apply pressure on media and politicians, all in the service of legitimacy-seeking via sympathetic portrayals of the police. So these leadership positions are given a lot of weight and symbolic value, and they’re used to show that certain kinds of “progress” are being made. Police departments are trying to recruit from those groups who have historically felt the brunt of police abuse—trying to tick those boxes—to try to restore some legitimacy among those constituencies.

A hiring sign for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police is displayed during a job fair for veterans at the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum on November 9, 2017, in Alameda, California. Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Naira: Does evidence suggest that the officers from these marginalized groups and communities—women, racial minorities, LGBTQ—come under pressure to fall into line?

Alex: Absolutely. There have been memoirs, especially from Black police officers, about racism within the police service and the pressures to engage in what they think are harmful behaviors. 

Criminalizing Communities

Naira: Racist acts in many jurisdictions have been made hate crimes. There was a proposal in 2021 in the UK to add misogyny to hate crime legislation. The proposal was part of a bill that would have given the police more powers in general, and it split feminists.

Alex: There’s a certain kind of feminism—which its critics call “carceral feminism”—which places a lot of stock in criminal legal enforcement as the means to fix problems, whether the problem is sex work, domestic violence, or sexual violence. The school of thought has been very naive about the relationship between the formal criminal legal system and actual behavior in the real world.

What’s been really interesting here in the United States has been growing pressure, among folks who work in the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault, against this carceral feminist viewpoint. It’s related to a debate about the Violence Against Women Act, which was initially passed in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act. The law created this new avenue of funding for what had been independent community-based support for victims of domestic violence. These became professionalized and integrated into the criminal legal system in a way that actually prevented many women from accessing these services, and did little to make women any safer.

There’s now a movement, among people who work in prevention of domestic violence and in supporting victims, to question whether we can solve misogyny and patriarchy in society by making them illegal—and by using the police as enforcers. Using the police for this purpose means mobilizing an institution that has historically been a major reproducer of gender inequality—including within its own ranks—to somehow be the defender of women. Not only does this not reduce domestic violence, but it also leads to more criminalization of already vulnerable communities. The law is not enforced equitably, and it creates more tension without having any meaningful impact on the actual problem.

We have generations of community-based feminist organizers telling us that we need to support community-based peer-to-peer organizing, to put resources into family support—things that build people up, that strengthen relationships, that create solidarities. We can’t rely on more criminalization of already criminalized communities.

Naira: What about research that shows that women’s police stations in places like Brazil and Argentina have reduced violence against women?

Alex: There is a small body of evidence that shows some positive impact of these centers when they contain social services to support victims of domestic violence. In fact, the demand for assistance typically overwhelms the availability of resources. These studies also show that these stations tend to be segregated from the rest of policing and that the women officers assigned there don’t advance within their police services. 

But there is a more important critique. First, these studies fail to make any effort to calculate the costs of these police-centered interventions. Is this really the best way to spend limited resources to support women in crisis? In addition, a police-centered strategy is rooted in a worldview that says that the coercive and potentially violent intervention of state actors is how we solve social problems, which in many ways reinforces core patriarchal values. 

Second, these studies fail to consider the relative value of alternative interventions. Is there really any intrinsic value for women to have resource centers under the control of the police service? Is the threat of legal action or police violence inherently better than a strictly social-services-oriented intervention run by community-based organizations? There is a lot of research that shows that well-funded, community-based domestic violence intervention can be extremely successful in helping women—without any connection to the criminal legal system. So, until we have research that measures the specific value of police-centered approaches relative to community-based ones, we really can’t say whether these interventions work. 

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header photo: A San Francisco Police Department recruiter talks with job seekers during a job fair on May 12, 2010. Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images