When Jamie McMahon started her career at the Springfield Police Department in 2015, she knew she had something to prove.
She was hired alongside one other female officer as a third woman on the force was preparing to retire and a fourth was on medical leave.
“I didn’t want to be considered the female who got hired because the police department was just trying to hire females,” McMahon said. “I knew I was qualified for this position, and I knew I could have beat other males that applied. I just wanted to prove to everyone that I deserve to be here as much as everybody else, female or not.”
The FBI reports 12.5% of full-time law enforcement officers are female across the nation. In Oregon, that rate is even less at 9%. Locally, the struggle to find female representation is approached differently — some benefiting from reputation and word of mouth, while some focus on skill sets and situational-based recruitment — with varying results.
The Lane County Sheriff’s Office exceeds both the national and the state average, with around 13% female deputy sheriffs and sergeants, but they are divided between working the streets and staffing the jail.
Eugene Police exceeds the state number, with more than 11% women on their force, but it lags behind the national average. Springfield is below both statistics, at 7%.
In the four years since McMahon was hired, the number of female officers serving Springfield has stayed the same, four, with two new women added in 2018, replacing the two who have left. One of the newest female officers is Lauren Card, who became an officer after surviving the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017.
There are many reasons why a police department should strive to draw in females to its force. A study last year from University of Virginia economics professor Amalia Miller showed more female representation in America’s police forces can both increase reporting of violent crimes against women and decrease domestic violence.
Having more female officers can positively impact a community and the performance of a police department, according to another study, by criminal justice professors Amie Schuck and Cara Rabe-Hemp. Their research showed female officers are less likely to be named in a citizen complaint compared to male officers and are less likely to have allegations of excessive force against them. Their research also found that just the presence of female officers can reduce the use of force among other officers.
“In terms of being a female officer, certainly there’s been situations where there’s been victims of violent crime, especially sexual violence, where it’s been a relief to have a woman show up,” said Jennifer Bills, a former Eugene police lieutenant who retired a few weeks ago after 25 years on the force.
Even though citizens use the same amount of force against female officers as they do male officers, and in some cases they are met with more force, female officers are more successful in diffusing violent or aggressive behavior, the Schuck and Rabe-Hemp report found.
“I haven’t been in many fights or pursuits because I think I can talk to people better,” Springfield’s McMahon said. “Or maybe bad guys have a sense of morals and don’t want to hit a girl. I don’t know what it is.”
Eugene Police Detective Jennifer Curry said she feels being a female in policing has benefited her, making people more likely to talk to her when she’s working on a case.
Of Eugene’s 236 police officer positions — or those who carry a badge and a gun — there are 17 female police officers, two female police sergeants, three female police lieutenants, one female police captain and a female deputy chief for a total of 24 sworn police personnel, seven of whom are in higher ranking positions.
Overall, Eugene Police have 198 police officers, 24 sergeants, nine lieutenants, three police captains, a deputy chief and a police chief.
This is according to data obtained through a public records request for the staff makeup of the Eugene and Springfield police departments and the Lane County Sheriff’s Office. The University of Oregon also provided data, but, citing policy, it declined to reveal race or gender of its police force.
Three of Eugene’s female police officers are identified as black in the city’s data. One female sergeant is identified as Hispanic.
Curry, who is identified as black, has been with the Eugene Police Department for 22 1⁄2 years and is a violent crimes detective, a position she’s always wanted to have, she said.
“I’ve always loved my job, and I still love it,” she said. “There have definitely been challenges, although I’ve never really associated them with being a female. I think when I was brand new, it was less common for women to be in law enforcement. … People I would see at the gym, when they would find out that I was a police officer, they would say things like, ‘Oh, you don’t work out on the street do you?’”
The Lane County Sheriff’s Office has 170 deputy sheriffs, and 23 of those are females, some of which police the streets and others staff the jail. There are also 24 sergeants at the sheriff’s office, two of them female. One of the female deputies is Asian, the county’s records show.
In Springfield, the smallest of the three agencies examined for this story, there are 52 police officers, four of whom are women and all are white. There were five in July, Lewis said, but one of his female officers voluntarily moved to the city’s municipal jail, a nonsworn position. Lewis believes five was likely the most female officers the department had ever had. Springfield Police also has nine police sergeants, all men. There are three police lieutenants, all men.
Reputation and word of mouth
But for police agencies like Eugene, Springfield and the sheriff’s office, the work to recruit women to their departments isn’t their only task. Word of mouth and reputation can go a long way to get women to join the force, and departments have to work especially hard to keep women on staff by maintaining a culture that encourages women to thrive.
“The No. 1 recruiting tool for police departments are the people that are here, the word of mouth,” Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said. “And our best recruiters of female future police officers are our existing police officers, both male and female. Because they have the ability to tell the story about why Eugene Police Department is a good fit for them.
“We can do job fairs and we can do CrossFit gyms, and we can do all of these things, but we’re hitching our wagons to telling a compelling story and having our people do the recruiting for us out in the community. And that has been working really, really well for us.”
Skinner said his department looks to encourage women to take leadership roles and believes that demonstrates to future recruits what EPD can do for them. For example, Bills is the first female special operations lieutenant at the Eugene Police Department, promoted in 2006.
Springfield Police Chief Rick Lewis said the department’s culture encourages an environment where officers are judged by how well they do their jobs, not by gender.
“For us, to recruit everyone, women and men, we go to career fairs, word of mouth from our employees, we try to make contacts with the colleges. We even got creative a little bit there and got the information out to CrossFit gyms, in more of a targeted area for women. And I have to tell you, we haven’t had much success from a lot of those. It’s a frustrating situation.”
The challenges Lewis faces in overall recruiting efforts seem to overshadow recruiting females specifically to the Springfield Police Department.
“The female officers we do have, they do an excellent job,” Lewis said. “I don’t think they bring anything different than the males do. I think that they’re just as capable to go out there and do the job in a very professional and assertive manner.”
Caitlin Gold joined the Springfield Police Department as an officer last year. She previously worked in the city’s municipal jail, building rapport with the police department’s staff. After checking out different area agencies, she ultimately decided on Springfield because of its smaller department and more familylike atmosphere.
“They just bend over backwards to make you better,” Gold said. “In my experience, I’ve had nothing but support and patience from my field training officers.”
The sheriff’s office says it recruits deputy applicants through job fairs, career days and holding open houses, while always trying to have a female deputy at those events to help answer questions that applicants may have specific to being a female in law enforcement.
“We’re always excited to be able to provide guidance to applicants and help them along the way and encourage anyone interested in a career in law enforcement to reach out to us,” Lane County Sheriff’s Sgt. Carrie Carver said.
Curry began her career with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in the 1990s, as part of its reserve program. She then joined Eugene Police 22 years ago and works as a violent crimes detective.
“I’ve had a lot of really good female senior officers who have mentored me over my years, so I feel like I’ve been pretty fortunate,” Curry said. “I’ve had a positive career and really haven’t had any sort of negative things associated with being a female.”
Having a highly qualified, diverse group of women and men is “absolutely a priority” for the sheriff’s office, Carver said, noting that while its percentage of female deputies is above the national average, it is “not as high as we would like it to be.”
“We share the same struggle as many law enforcement agencies across the nation to find qualified women and men for the position of deputy sheriff,” Carver said. “While our ultimate goal is to hire highly qualified applicants, we recognize the benefits of having a work group composed of men and women, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and with a variety of skill sets to be able to provide the best service to our community members.”
But some agencies in the state have seemingly figured it out when it comes to retaining women on their forces. The Hillsboro, Milwaukie and Medford police departments each have more than 17% females on their forces, among the highest in the state, according to data obtained from the Department of Safety Standards and Training. Other agencies, particularly the smaller departments, like Brookings, St. Helens and Bandon, have no women on their police staff.
“We really haven’t targeted females directly,” Medford Police Chief Scott Clauson said. “Some of our recruiting has occurred because we have some great female officers who tell their friends, so we’ve gotten a lot of successful candidates recruited that way. It’s difficult to target a specific gender. ... I think females bring the full package. They often times have a more calm, rational way of looking at things and tend to place an emphasis on communication, as opposed to use of force. So it’s because of that we’ve been very successful in this field.”
“We’ve always had high numbers of female officers,” Hillsboro Sgt. Eric Bunday said. “We’ve always valued women in policing (and relied on) not so much recruiting, but word of mouth and our reputation as a department that was one of the earliest in the state to have women in leadership roles who are working specialty assignments like K9s, and that dates back to the 1980s even. So our department has built that reputation.”
Eugene’s new deputy chief, Stacy Jepson, who was sworn in in April, came to Eugene from the Hillsboro Police Department.
In Eugene, while the department has several women in leadership roles, many are close to retirement age, and the challenge to keep women on the force never ends.
“We have a number of women in leadership positions currently at EPD,” said Bills, the lieutenant who recently retired after 25 years with EPD. “The challenge to all of that is we’re all very close to retirement eligibility. So we could see a very different phase of the police department very shortly. Retirements and women leaving the department have gone much faster than the ability to hire and retain women.”
But Bills said she’s hopeful. In the current group of new hires at the state’s police academy, there are four women, which she called “unheard of” and “fantastic.”
So what should women know who are interested in joining law enforcement?
McMahon said it’s all about hard work.
“It’s going to be hard and people are going to look at you differently because you’re smaller, or they don’t think you can last in a fight or hold your own, or for whatever reason you’re not as good as them,” she said. “But you have to stick with it and know that you can do it because eventually, if you do good enough work, you get promoted and they’ll respect you.”
Bills echoed that sentiment.
“Yes, it’s tough being a woman in policing, and yes, you have to work harder,” she said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”