In the wake of protests to end police violence, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, calls arose from every corner to address police brutality: firing and prosecuting “bad apple” cops, reforming police departments by banning chokeholds and initiating greater accountability through the repeal of 50-A in New York, defunding police departments, and abolishing the police and the prison-industrial complex. A revived call to hire more women police officers to help curtail instances of brutality in police departments has also been proposed as a potential resolution. In recent weeks, publications ranging from the Washington Post to CNN to Ms. have all published editorials arguing for this reform, and Ms. went even so far as to suggest that women would “revolutionize” police departments.
Similar arguments of this ilk have surfaced multiple times over the last decade, usually in response to protests against police brutality. But though it’s a presented under the guise of feminist reform and more equitable hiring practices, more women in the police force is a false flag for change. These arguments rely on studies from the past several decades that show that women, who make up only 13 percent of police forces in the United States, are more inclined to use communication to de-escalate and defuse situations, less prone to use excessive force, and less likely than male police officers to use their firearms. “Women invented de-escalation,” former Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau told CNN. “It’s called communication.” Though these studies raise important points, none of them account for how women acquire these abilities, though these statistics are utilized to make the case that women arrive on police forces already equipped with these intrinsic skills.
This language implies that women are inherently less inclined to abuse power. Moreover, it predicts socialized behavior based on gender without regard to race or class, prioritizing the idea that men and women have innate instincts when dealing with conflict. Not only does it dodge institutional accountability and place responsibility for harm on individuals, but it reduces women to immutable placeholders of nonviolence instead of examining how women participate in and enact violence on others, whether or not they’re in uniform. In June, Stacy Talbert, a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia, posted a video that quickly went viral. While wiping away tears, Talbert explained that her McDonald’s order took too long and she became scared to eat it. “Right now I’m too nervous to take a meal from McDonald’s…Please just give us a break. I don’t know how much more I can take.”
Having bought into a fabricated narrative that fast-food chain employees try to poison police officers, Talbert expected strangers on the internet to sympathize with her. In an interview with BuzzFeed, she clarified, “This feeling we feel in law enforcement constantly. You’re always looking, we’re arching our necks…We all feel that way except I voiced it.” Talbert’s performance of fear is an articulation of a two-pronged assumption: that the police are legitimately afraid for their lives, and that her “compassion or emotion,” as she added, deserves our empathy. That performance echoed another weaponizing of fear, filmed on the same day Floyd was killed. When Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York City, shrieked on the phone to a 911 operator that she was being threatened by a Black man, she drew on a long history of white women’s alleged victimization being used to inflict harm. And while her actions didn’t result in any physical harm, she became a flashpoint for illustrating how white women have wielded the threat of crying for help to terrorize Black and brown people, particularly men, for centuries.
It also showcased that women are no less likely to utilize tools of oppression than men, even if the tools themselves are gendered. Kathleen Spillar, executive editor of Ms., and also the executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which runs the National Center for Women and Policing, told the magazine that Floyd’s death likely could’ve been prevented had there been women police officers on the scene. While the numbers suggest fewer women than men commit police brutality, Spillar’s statement is frighteningly naive. In September 2016, Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer Betty Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher while his hands were up. “I saw a threat and I used the force I felt necessary to stop a threat…his actions dictated my actions,” she told 60 Minutes. When pressed, she added, “There’s something that we always say: I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.” In other words, it’s better to kill than be killed, based on the assumption that those are the only two options.
In 2018, Dallas, Texas, police officer Amber Guyger walked into Botham Jean’s apartment and fatally shot him because she believed that Jean was an intruder in her home. Both women, who are white, used fear of the men they killed, both Black, to justify their violence. While both killings are clear instances of police brutality, neither can be seen without a racialized and gendered lens. And they reveal that women are as inclined as men to employ the language of oppression to maintain their power. According to the Washington Post, one of the reasons there are for so few women in policing is a culture that “overvalue(s) physical strength while undervaluing communication skills and emotional intelligence.” Ms. agreed, stating that hiring trends have been the same since the 1960s, “when officers were recruited for physical strength, rather than the critical thinking and communication skills needed for community based policing.”
Police brutality is institutionalized in the very nature of policing. We can’t dismantle a machine by replacing its parts.
In this assessment, men are not only predisposed to violence but also use bullying and harassment to make police forces unfriendly for women. Arguing for more women in the police force lets men off the hook, as though they can’t help themselves or can’t be taught to behave differently. And besides the false premise that women have the necessary critical thinking skills by virtue of their gender, women shouldn’t accept the burden of change in a toxic culture. In many cases, they don’t, choosing to be integrated into the culture of the institution in order to succeed in their profession. As Shelby implies when she explains, “There’s something that we always say,” and Talbert signals when she claims, “We all feel that way,” women are subsumed into the culture of policing rather than standing against it. Employing more women is a cop out, and the argument disguises itself as a radical, feminist transformation instead of a symbolic changing of the guard.
Over the past several weeks, as protests spread across the United States, videos proliferated of police using batons, pepper spray, tear gas and their vehicles to intimidate and injure protestors. Police have killed 506 people in 2020 alone. Violence is integral to policing in the United States, and despite the fact that banning chokeholds and increasing implicit bias training have done little to reduce instances of brutality, we’re still being offered up these toothless reforms. Police brutality is institutionalized in the very nature of policing. We can’t dismantle a machine by replacing its parts. In order for systems of oppression to change, we can’t merely substitute their participants, nor place the blame for harm at the feet of individuals. Women can’t redeem the police; no one can.