Fewer women, same duties

Male officers outnumber female officers at the University and at police departments nationally.

Elizabeth Cook

The car lurches down Washington Avenue Southeast. It’s 6 p.m., and officer Lara Severson is working her Tuesday night shift.

Severson is one of 10 female officers who work for the University Police Department, said Steve Johnson, the deputy police chief for the department.

According to statistics compiled from Minneapolis police, St. Paul police and University police, female police officers are a minority in the field.

Severson said she likes the challenge of the work. Physically, men typically are stronger, but the training officers go through is the same regardless of sex. She said it’s up to the officers to stay one step ahead and keep in shape.

Severson, who’s been at the University for two years, said she likes it because of the variety of the job. There are many different units to participate in, she said, and she just got assigned the mounted patrol unit.

As the patrol car made its rounds around the University area, Severson talked about the training she went through.

Severson estimated a third of the students in her officer skills training in St. Paul were women, and half the class in the Minneapolis Police Academy were women.

Severson works the 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and every other weekend ‘ a shift that once was entirely female.

Severson said having other women on the job makes her feel comfortable, but it doesn’t matter either way.

Severson said some femal officers have experienced harassment and discrimination from citizens because some people don’t recognize women as superiors, although it has never happened to her.

Political science sophomore Kelly Thomas said she feels safer having male police officers.

She said it’s just how society looks at men. It’s OK for a man to walk by himself at night, she said, but women should always be with someone.

Mylan Masson, the president of the Minnesota Association of Women Police, said the national average of female officers is between 11 percent and 13 percent, and has been decreasing slightly for the past four years.

Masson said women face different challenges in a predominately male field.

Women always are fighting for acceptance and think they need to prove themselves, Masson said.

Masson said sometimes female officers aren’t as willing to help their female co-workers because they are focused on trying to advance themselves in the field.

But, she said, citizens generally like female police officers more. They tend to show more compassion and are not as abusive, she said.

Chemical engineering sophomore Alex Heinzen said it doesn’t make any difference to him whether an officer is a man or woman.

Heinzen said he’s seen officers around the University, and regardless of sex, they do the same job.

The St. Paul Police Department is above the national average, with 21.9 percent of its officers women.

Sgt. Mary Nash of the St. Paul Police Department, who is also the secretary for the Minnesota Association of Women Police, said women work on a different level than men.

Nash said all officers have different abilities and skills that are unique and it’s the blending of the abilities that make a police department work.

Nash said that to have more female officers the candidate pool needs to change, which it has locally over the years.

Neil Melton, executive director for the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training said the number of women in police schools around the state has increased.

The requirements for being a police officer for men and women are the same, he said. There no longer are tests based on strength and agility, but rather wellness assessments, he said.

The Minneapolis Police Department is also above the national average, with 15.7 percent women, said Sgt. Tammy Diedrich.

Diedrich is in charge of recruiting after having left the homicide unit where she worked for 10 years and was the third woman to ever be assigned to the unit for Minneapolis.

Even though the national average is decreasing, Diedrich said she thinks there are more female candidates in the pool.

Diedrich said there are challenges women might face when first starting training, such as shooting a handgun and developing muscle.

“But that’s easily trainable,” she said.

Diedrich said being a woman helps her recruit other women because she can help mentor them and tell them firsthand what to expect.

One of Diedrich’s goals is to hire more American Indian female officers. The department is in the process of hiring one now, she said.

Donald Harris, deputy chief for the Minneapolis Police Department, said having female officers helps with public trust.

It’s very important for officers to look like the community they are serving, Harris said. This makes people think they are getting treated fairly and gains trust for police, he said.

As Severson scanned license plates through a high-tech system while driving down Fourth Street Southeast, she said, “I want to be seen as an equal, not the lesser of the two. I don’t want to be treated any different because I am a woman.”