The Gals in Blue: Where Are the Real-Life Olivia Bensons?

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Successful female cops populate some of the country’s favorite TV dramas. From Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) to The Wire’s Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) to The Closer’s Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) to Castle’s Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), we see women in law enforcement apprehending sex offenders, performing stellar detective work, nailing interrogations, and closing cases. But in real life, women make up a surprisingly small percentage of police forces. 

The U.S. Department of Justice cited the following statistics in the 2010 report Women in Law Enforcement:

In 2007, women accounted for about 15% of the total sworn law enforcement officers in large local police departments. In large sheriffs’ offices, female officers comprised about 13% of the total sworn officers. In contrast, local police departments with between 1 and 10 full-time sworn officers employed fewer than 2,000 female law enforcement officers nationwide (6%). Small sheriffs’ offices across the county employed just over 200 total sworn officers who were women (4%) in 2007.

That sounds like a lot less gender equity than we saw back in the ’80s on Cagney & Lacey.

“We need a larger number of women in there,” Penny Harrington, the first female chief of a major U.S. police department and founder of The National Center for Women & Policing, told Bitch via phone. “On the entry level, they set up testing that relies heavily on upper body strength. Women fail to get in in the first place.” So although TV presents us with diverse depictions of female law enforcement from Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) in the mini-series Prime Suspect to TV’s longest-running black character Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) on Law & Order, real-life women in policing struggle to enter the field at all.

Harrington also noted that, once women make it into the department, they carry the heavy burden of representation:

Once they’re in, anything that a woman does wrong is talked about by everybody. Women get labeled early on in their careers….Women are held to a higher standard of performance in practically anything. You have to do more than [men] do and you have to do it better to be considered as good as they are. It’s that old-boy attitude toward women.

So although The Wire’s Detective Greggs is lauded among her colleagues Freamon, Carver, Herc, and McNulty, it’s possible that, in real life, her impeccable work would barely merit equal treatment.

To be sure, Harrington said that women have made strides in law enforcement: “In 1964, I started as police. I was in it for 24 years. I was seeing some small progress. When I started in 1964, there were 12 women in my department; in 1986, there were 85 in my department out of 1000.”

Yet it’s surprising that the ratio of women in policing is growing at such a slow rate. According to Harrington, women make just as many arrests and stolen car recoveries. “Any [metric] you want to measure, women do just as well as men,” she said. “But still, the men don’t consider them equal partners.”

WomansWork_TheWire_KimaUnderstandably, it’s a fraught choice for anyone, regardless of gender, to enter a potentially dangerous profession. And because the job is physically demanding, it’s ableist at its core. But for women who choose to pursue law enforcement as a career, it’s imperative that they’re allowed to enter and advance in the field. Excluding women from the top ranks of policing creates a gender-stratified system that can result in hostility towards women. Noted Harrington, “We need to weed out the men [in law enforcement] who are obviously anti-women. How do you think they’re going to treat the women victims?”

It’s a tough climb for the real-life versions of Benson, Greggs, Johnson, and Beckett. While television makes us think that women can rise just as high in the ranks as Law & Order: SVU’s Stabler or The Wire’s McNulty, in real life, women in law enforcement struggle to break into the sector—and struggle to succeed.

Said Harrington, “Women don’t want to complain because they have no support; they suffer retaliation. It’s not changing, and that’s the sad part.”


Read more of this guest blog Women’s Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

by Grace Bello
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

this article mentions ableism

this article mentions ableism as one feature of oppression that we can see in law enforcement careers, but what about the racism inherent in policing? what about classism and the criminalization of the poor? what about transphobia and the disparate harm visited on trans and gender non-conforming people by prisons and the police?

I don't really understand how Bitch can cover struggles to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and highlight the work of activists like Vikki Law, Angela Davis, Dean Spade, et al. and simultaneously post a blog on its website bemoaning the lack of women in law enforcement. the feminism I most frequently see Bitch espouse is about more than plugging women into oppressive institutions, it's about dismantling structural oppression and working against all forces of harm, including sexism, racism, classism, and more. I find this blog post to be a great disappointment.

the lack of women police isn't a problem. the EXISTENCE of police in our communities is the problem.

Penny Harrington

For readers who would like to know more about Chief Penny Harrington, her autobiography - "Triumph of Spirit" - is available at and Penny is also profiled in my own book - "Top Cops: Profiles of Women in Command - which is available on the same websites.

And for readers interested in

And for readers interested in learning more about the prison-industrial complex and ways to resist policing and mass incarceration, I recommend

-Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
-The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
-Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison-Industrial Complex edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith
-Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
-Abolition Now! by the Critical Resistance Publications Collective
-The Revolution Starts at Home by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
-Prisons Will Not Protect You edited by Ryan Conrad
-Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women by Vikki Law
-Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade

et al.

Aren't books great?

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