U chief leads new women’s police group

by Jessica Steeno

Police work has often been called the ultimate men’s club, and though women are now allowed full membership, they lag behind in gaining leadership positions.
University Police Chief Joy Rikala is one of the founding members of a new organization of high-ranking female police officers called the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives. The group held its first conference at Duke University earlier this month.
“This organization was something that about six of us seeded as an idea out of some frustration about three years ago,” Rikala said. “I’m not one who believes that you need to have separate organizations, but we felt that there was a need not only for networking for women executives, but to be able to have an opportunity for women who are coming up the ranks to have role models and get mentoring.”
Rikala said the goal of the organization is to have no need for it in 25 years. The conference, she said, was attended by 75 women who hold the rank of lieutenant or above in police departments nationwide. The executives attended workshops and shared concerns specific to women in law enforcement.
“It was very empowering,” she said.
The history of women in law enforcement has been a struggle for acceptance. Although women have been working as police officers for almost 90 years, equal rights and respect for female police have been an uphill climb.
For example, it was not until 1972 and the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act that women were allowed into squad cars.
Prior to the passage of that act, female officers worked with youth divisions or in jails. They did what males couldn’t or didn’t want to do — searched female prisoners and suspects, changed diapers and typed reports. They didn’t have the same opportunities for advancement, and their pay was always lower than that of male officers.
That act was not the end of the struggle for women law enforcement officers, though. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, only 8.8 percent of all law enforcement officers in the nation are women.
“I came into this department really feeling like I had to prove my ability,” said Marianne Olson, a detective who began work with the University Police Department in May 1993.
Because there are so few women working as police, many female officers feel that the community has not yet accepted them.
“My feeling has been that they’re not going to give a female officer the respect or cooperation they’re going to give a male officer in general,” Olson said.
Even fewer executive law enforcers are women. The percentage of women at lieutenant or above is close to 3 percent, Rikala said.
Rikala is one of four female police chiefs in Minnesota. There are about 450 police chiefs in the state, according to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Getting more women into police work is the key to increasing these numbers, Rikala said.
“It has to start way back,” Rikala said. “We’re talking elementary schools. You have to demonstrate by not only putting police officers in schools, but female police officers who start interacting with young children.”
Despite efforts by some women to make themselves more accepted in the field, some people still feel that women can’t be good police officers because of their size and strength.
“I think every one of us, especially females, always have to try to defeat the myth that we’re going to have to encounter this 350-pound male in the alley, and we just won’t have the physical strength to deal with it,” Rikala said.
Rikala said females have ways of making up for their lack of physical strength.
“I have always said that females have better communication styles. I know my survival when I worked undercover for many years was my ability to talk my way out of things,” she said. “I think females bring different skill sets. I don’t think that physical size and strength in today’s policing makes any difference.”