'I have to do this': In male-dominated field, female officer strikes balance in serving public - The Daily Progress, August 14, 2016
With tears streaking her face, the young woman screams, “Just get away from me!” at Charlottesville Police Officer Katie McKeown, turns around and starts walking down the hill, away from the flashing police cars parked in front of a small corner house in a quiet city neighborhood.
Dusk is settling and Officer McKeown, 27, has just arrived to answer a call about a loud domestic dispute.
The woman’s boyfriend — who told police she had bitten him during an argument — stands at the top of the hill, watching with concern, as she walks away. While McKeown’s male colleague talks to the man, she walks toward the distraught woman.
“I just want to talk to you,” says McKeown, following her. “I want to understand what happened. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“No, just leave me alone,” the woman snaps, brushing past McKeown.
Standing nearby, McKeown gives her space to call a family member. Hanging up the phone, the woman sinks to the ground, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk with her head in her hands.
Leaning over, McKeown again tries to get the woman’s side of the story. Slowly, she tells McKeown she and her boyfriend started arguing after she accused him of infidelity. That was when she lashed out.
“Yeah, I bit him,” the woman says.
At that point, McKeown and her colleagues know they will have to take her into custody. Under Virginia law, if a police officer believes a person has assaulted a household member, the officer can arrest that person without a warrant and take them into custody as a way to protect a victim.
Once the woman finishes her story, McKeown tells her they need to see a magistrate at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail to figure things out. While her boyfriend protests her detainment, McKeown carefully helps the handcuffed woman into her patrol car.
McKeown is a member of a small minority of police officers nationwide: she’s a woman. Although many women prove highly capable in law enforcement, the face of America’s police departments is decidedly male.
Nationwide, in 2013, 88.4 percent of law enforcement officers were men, with women making up just 11.6 percent of sworn positions, according to the most recent statistics gathered by the FBI. Even fewer women hold leadership positions in their agencies, grappling to hold just 1 percent of all police chief positions in the country.
The Charlottesville Police Department currently employs 117 sworn officers, 20 percent of whom are women — driving the department well-ahead of the national average. The Charlottesville department, however, is one of just two localities in Central Virginia ahead of the curve.
The Waynesboro Police Department sits just behind Charlottesville with almost 16 percent of their 38 officers being women, putting them almost 5 percent ahead of the national average.
With 132 sworn officers, the Albemarle County Police Department is just below the national average, with women officers accounting for 11.4 percent of their force.
Smaller local agencies fall even further behind the national average. At the Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Office, out of 34 sworn deputies, three are women, putting them at just under 9 percent. In Greene County, two of the 26 deputies, or 7.7 percent, at the sheriff’s office are women, while at the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office, there is one woman out of 44 deputies, about 2 percent.
“It should concern all of us who care about gender equality and who would like to see policing better represent the communities we service,” said Dianne Gittins, deputy chief of the Alexandria Police Department. “I believe that a police department should mirror — as closely as possible — the population of the community it serves. It just makes sense.”
Overall, the commonwealth is ahead of the national average, with women making up 11.9 percent of all officers, according to a 2015 Virginia State Police report. That number, however, is down from 12.2 percent in 2014.
Amid national tensions, law enforcement is struggling to recruit new officers, regardless of gender. For local police, the desire is always there to diversify their departments with more women and minorities, but it can be difficult to target specific groups of people, according to Charlottesville Police Sgt. Robert Haney.
“I always say this job is not for everyone,” said Haney, who serves as a recruitment officer. “This is a job in which I’m going to ask the most of you — I’m going to ask for you to put your life on the line for the community. You have to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It’s really hard to just target certain individuals. We want everybody.”
As local agencies look for suitable recruits, Gittins said law enforcement overall could find better ways of communicating directly to girls and women. As a member of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Women in Law Enforcement, Gittins said she would like to welcome more women to the ranks.
“While we have managed to break down barriers to gender roles in many professions, traditional norms around men as police officers still prevail,” said Gittins, a 27-year veteran. “We do have some great role models in leaders like Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier and even on television — Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson [on “Law & Order”] is a terrific example — but, for the most part, girls are still brought up to see men as police. We need to change that.”
* * *
Waiting for the red light to turn green near the Lewis and Clark statue on West Main Street, McKeown subtly scans the cars around her, searching for expired registration stickers. Having only become a fully fledged officer in March, she often begins her shifts driving around the city, looking for anything out of order.
The police vehicle’s windows are rolled down and a breeze blows thick with a threatening thunderstorm. McKeown takes a quick sip of a fruit smoothie.
“Hey,” yells a man in a station wagon that pulls up next to the police van. “Are you the officer who came out when my drunk girlfriend punched me?”
“Um, I don’t know,” McKeown replies, bemused. “Were there a couple of other guys on the porch?”
“No,” he says, “maybe it wasn’t you, then. You’re just one of the only female cops I’ve seen.”
McKeown smiles. “Yeah, there are only a few of us.”
“That’s cool,” the man says. “I’m not with my girlfriend anymore.”
“Well, that’s probably good,” McKeown says as the light turns green and the cars in front of her inch forward. “Have a good evening.”
Gittins said that police are often perceived as über masculine, more brawn than brains — an image that can hurt law enforcement efforts to hire more women. To combat that image and make the career a realistic option to women, Gittins said departments need to work on how they advertise themselves and try to reach out specifically to women.
Eighty to 95 percent of police work involves nonviolent, communicative service to help people solve problems in the community, according to a Washington Post article — the type of work not often advertised by police departments, Gittins said.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding of the full range of what the job entails, which contributes to tentativeness on the part of young women in particular to become police officers,” said Gittins. “They may perceive there to be greater requirements regarding physical strength than we actually have.”
While it’s true that some women fail the initial physical test because they lack the upper body strength, Chesapeake Police Sgt. Diana Tharp, also a member of the women’s law enforcement association, said she wishes more women would just go for it.
“I want to see women progress,” said Tharp, a 19-year veteran. “It just depends on their drive. We don’t want different agility tests — women just need to work at it.”
Even for the women who can make it through the physical fitness tests and get through the academy, having the right attitude also is essential, Tharp said. Without confidence, would-be officers of both sexes will not be able to command the respect necessary for the job.
“How you carry yourself makes a huge difference,” Tharp said. “You have to have that confidence and calm manner that makes people say, ‘I’m not going to mess with her.’”
For McKeown, law enforcement is in her blood. Growing up in Orange County, she looked up to her uncle, Mark Amos — the sheriff in town — and grew to admire police officers. With a love for staying active and a strong desire to help others, McKeown said the blue lights and sirens just called to her.
And that’s the key for Charlottesville’s Sgt. Haney — finding the right people always trumps statistics, he said.
“I think the calling is very special,” Haney said. “I want to attract more females, but I want to get the right individuals in here. Katie wanted to help people, and I commend that.”
Like other women officers, the gender gap stays in the back of her mind when McKeown puts her badge on every day, but it does not stop her from doing her job.
“I feel like women can do this just as much as men can,” McKeown said. “We might come across people who are going to be stronger than us, but, with the proper technique, those people are going to crumble. You’ll be able to detain them and get your job done safely.”
Most careers do not require people to put their lives on the line, but law enforcement does just that. For most men and women, that sacrifice is too high and deters them from the job.
For some women, there is often pressure to leave the force and its sometimes strange working hours after only a few years in order to raise a family.
“There may be this perception that being an officer interferes with a work-life balance or that women officers can’t have families,” Gittins said. “In some departments, it might be tough, but in many, such as Alexandria, it’s not true at all.”
The rocks under the cool water at Riverview Park were slippery with green algae, but McKeown’s son, Cruz, expertly waded toward the center of the river. Stopping every step to look at the tiny minnows darting around his toes, the 7-year-old meandered his way farther and farther into the shallow river.
“Where are you going?” McKeown asked from the shore.
“Nowhere,” Cruz said mischievously.
“Uh huh,” McKeown said, smiling.
As a newer officer, McKeown requested the late-night patrol shift (usually 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.) because she wanted to get as many calls as possible under her belt while Cruz is still little. As he grows and becomes more involved in sports and school activities, she wants to eventually get on a daylight shift to be able to be there for her son.
“It’s hard, and I feel guilty sometimes, leaving him to come to work, but I have to do this; I don’t have a choice,” McKeown said. “And there are some people who have to make harder choices than I do when it comes to being a single parent.”
When she’s not working or sleeping, McKeown tries to spend as much time with Cruz as she can. On her days off, the two can often be found outside, exploring the trails, rivers and parks around Charlottesville. But sometimes, it’s hard to tell her son she won’t be home to tuck him in at night or explain why she might need to sleep in a little longer.
“He wants to do everything with me when I’m not working — he’s momma’s boy,” she said. “It’s just hard to explain to a 7-year-old why I need sleep to be alert at work and be ready for anything.”
At the park, McKeown followed her son out into the middle of the river and found a dry rock to sit on. While he worked his way around the island of rocks, Cruz began an inventory of all the aquatic creatures living in the tiny pools around him: minnows, mosquitoes, a dragonfly and a variety of creepy crawlies.
“Whoa, it’s a maggot worm,” Cruz said, looking at a grey blob on his index finger that he had pulled out of the water.
“A what,” McKeown asked in horror.
After studying the little worm for a few seconds, Cruz suddenly flicked it back into the river, as he and his mom both yelled “Ew!”
Giggling in delight, Cruz decided to make a minnow trap. Taking small rocks from the bottom of the river, he started making a wall around one of the pools. Then, scooping up handfuls of water, he tried to contain his darting captives.
“That’s a good idea,” McKeown said. “Little fish like places to hide in the rocks so they don’t get eaten.”
“By me,” Cruz said gleefully.
While McKeown initially became an officer to help people in her community, she said she also wants to be seen as a trustworthy figure for young people, including Cruz. When he was younger and showed a moment of fear around police, McKeown sat him down and explained that police are here to help.
“I really just want to set an example for our youth,” said McKeown. “I want them to be able to approach an officer and to confide in them and trust them.”
Now, as Cruz begins to understand his mom’s job and see her in uniform, he couldn’t be more excited, McKeown said. It is slowly becoming a little easier for McKeown to get out the door for work, with fewer tears.
“He’s gotten better,” McKeown said. “He used to be terrible with me leaving. Sometimes he’ll get a little emotional and then that makes it harder for me to leave, but he’s tickled to death that his mom is a cop. He’s supportive at the age of 7. He’s awesome.”
The warm sun shone down through tree branches hanging low over the river, creating dazzling lights on the surface of the water. As Cruz slowly inched farther into the water and his clothes got soaked, McKeown told him they should start making their way towards the shore so she could grab the change of clothes she brought for him.
“Does that mean I can go swimmin’?” Cruz asked.
“What? No,” McKeown said, laughing. “We’re going to that other park, remember? I’m going for a run with some guys from work. We can come back here another day.”
“But I want to stay here,” Cruz said, a whine creeping into his voice.
“I’m going to feed you to the sharks if you don’t stop whining,” McKeown said.
“You can’t,” Cruz said, pouting, before a smile crept onto his face. “There aren’t any sharks here.”
Haney doesn’t know why more women don’t come out for the job, but he said the city department has been fortunate enough to see more women applying in recent years. Women officers can sometimes succeed where men fail, he said, most notably with women victims.
“Sometimes victims of domestic violence are looking to talk to a female because their abuser may be a male,” Haney said. “When we have a victim of domestic violence and we have to take certain pictures, sometimes the woman will have to disrobe, and we like to have a woman officer there to take those pictures. It’s important, in certain circumstances, for women officers to be available.”
And while it’s not a good idea to generalize, both Gittins and Tharp said they think women can sometimes be more patient and willing to talk things out before resorting to physical force.
“It really depends on the call, the circumstances and the individual, but I would say that I’ve seen female officers who can be more patient and who can have better listening and negotiating skills than some of their male counterparts,” Gittins said. “And that can help resolve challenging situations.”
While some support for hiring more women officers is anecdotal, some statistical evidence suggests women officers are much less likely to use unnecessary physical force or discharge their firearm while on the job, according to an Al Jazeera article.
Male officers are almost nine times as likely to be disciplined for excessive force as their female counterparts, according to a 2002 comparison of excessive force complaints from seven major U.S. police agencies conducted by the National Center for Women and Policing.
The study, which is the most recent data available, also claimed that the average male officer costs between two-and-a-half and five-and-a-half times more than the average female officer in excessive force liability lawsuit payouts.
While patrolling Charlottesville, McKeown said she often finds herself listening to people who simply have had a bad day.
“Sometimes, I feel like I can be a little more patient and a little more understanding,” McKeown said. “At times, I get on calls and I just let people talk — sometimes they just need someone to talk to. I’m going to listen to you. I’m not just going to come in and be a badass.”
While harassment and sexism can be part of the job, McKeown said she has felt nothing but support from her department and the Charlottesville community.
“My fellow officers are awesome,” said McKeown. “They don’t treat me any differently; I feel like I’m one of the guys. And so far, with the people I’ve arrested, a lot of the time they’re a bit more respectful, I think.”
“I know it won’t happen every time, but a lot of the times, I’m like, ‘Hey, cut it out,’” she barked. “And they’re like, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
McKeown gently helps the woman accused of biting her boyfriend into the back of the patrol car.
“Lord, it’s hot,” the woman says, struggling to find a comfortable position in McKeown’s cruiser with her hands cuffed. “Can you turn the air conditioning on?”
“Sure,” McKeown says. “Sorry about that. It can get pretty hot in here. That better?”
“Yeah, thanks,” the woman says. “So, we’re going to the jail now?”
“Just as soon as we go by the police department,” McKeown says. “I just need to pick up some paperwork.”
After making sure the woman is comfortable, McKeown picks up her radio microphone and calls in her location to the Emergency Communications Center. Officers have to stay in constant contact with the ECC and their fellow officers, but sometimes they can get a little tongue-tied.
“98 to ECC,” McKeown says, giving her badge number and waiting for the go-ahead.
“I have one female on board en route to the jail and complex …” she takes her finger off of the mic button.
“Wait, that’s the same thing,” she says, laughing. “Let me try that again.”
“98 to ECC,” she radios. “Sorry about that. I have one female on board, and we’re heading to PD and then the complex.”
At the jail, McKeown helps the woman out of the cruiser and spends the next 90 minutes filling out paperwork, speaking to a magistrate and waiting to hear whether the woman would remain in custody or be released. Ultimately, the magistrate agreed that the woman could be released on her own recognizance but would be returned to jail if she got into any other altercations with her boyfriend.
“So, do you understand what you need to do?” McKeown asks. “You can’t fight with him anymore or you might end up back in here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the woman says with relief. “I’m not going anywhere near him. I might get a hotel room. I’m not talking to him tonight.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” McKeown replies. “You know, women hold on to things for a long time. We do that. You just have to try not to dwell on things for too long.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” the woman says, shaking her head. “But don’t worry. I won’t be back here.”
Giving her one final reminder to not violate her no-contact order, McKeown makes sure the woman has a ride home before hitting the streets and resuming her patrol. A few hours later, long past the time most people are awake, McKeown heads back downtown to the police department to end her shift.
While finishing up her incident report of the arrest, she hears another call come over the radio about a domestic dispute.
It’s at the same small corner home in a quiet city neighborhood.
Lauren Berg is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, email@example.com or @LaurenBergK on Twitter.