Want to reduce police use of force? Experts say you need more women
One night in November 2017, a 15-year-old Indigenous boy was riding a snowmobile with five other people when Mounties stopped them just outside of Tuktoyaktok in the Northwest Territories.
The Mounties asked the boys a few questions, which per a statement of claim, they answered. And then, without provocation, the RCMP officers are alleged to have pushed the 15-year-old to the ground before choking, punching and using a stun gun on him.
They then handcuffed the boy, whom they allegedly called a “stupid f**king Native” and a “Native punk kid,” before bringing him back to the police station.
They released him into the custody of his mother, per the statement of claim, and no charges were filed.
That boy is Joe Nasogaluak, the lead plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit that is seeking $600 million and that alleges the RCMP routinely abuses the Indigenous people they are tasked with keeping safe in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut.
The RCMP declined to comment on the class action, citing “ongoing court proceedings.”
Use of force often comes under fire after an assault or fatality. But if the goal of police reform — particularly in the case of the scandal-plagued RCMP — is to reduce misconduct, lessen the use of force, and decrease complaints, then criminologists, pollsters, and police researchers have some advice: hire more women.
The problem, per Lesley Bikos’ 2016 research paper “I Took the Blue Pill,” is that even though women police officers now make up roughly 20 per cent of all Canadian cops, they’re still working in a hypermasculine culture that subjects them to discrimination and sexual harassment while making it difficult for them to play to their strengths.
Joseph Balkin explained the difference between men and women in a still quoted 1988 research review in the Journal of Police Science and Administration:
“Policemen see police work as involving control through authority, while policewomen see it as a public service.”
Use of force
When it comes to defusing or de-escalating potentially violent confrontations, the National Center for Women and Policing noted that women tend to be better at it than men. They’re also less likely to get caught up in issues of excessive force, tend to be better communicators, and “are able to facilitate the cooperation and trust required to implement a community policing model.”
There’s 50 years of research to back up those claims, says Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which oversees the centre. In 2017, Pew Research Center surveys of more than 7,900 U.S. police officers found that of those who reported a physical struggle with a suspect, 35 per cent were male officers compared with 22 per cent women. It also found men were more likely than women to have discharged their weapon: 30 per cent versus 11 per cent.
WATCH: The men barked at the women like dogs, ex-Mountie says
One of the National Center for Women and Policing Center’s 2002 reports in particular reviewed research on seven U.S. police forces, finding that male police officers cost upwards of two-and-a-half times their female colleagues in excessive force liability payouts and that the average male officer is between two and three times more likely to be the subject of a citizen complaint for use of force. As the United Nations also notes, there are other benefits. Seeing women acting as police officers also serves as a good model for gender equality, providing “a greater sense of security to women and children,” in addition improving their police and access and support.
Despite this, Spillar says, there’s still “such extraordinary resistance to change within law enforcement at every level and in every country.”
So far, wrote Bikos, also a former cop, reforms have tended to be “incremental, surface changes meant to appease human rights legislation and quiet dissension from the public.”
A real shift, she wrote, would see a move away from the glorified “hypermasculine hero image” of a cop and towards community policing that includes “communication, collaboration, and empathy.”
Community policing is where Kevin Walby, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, who wrote a report about the impacts of the militarization of Canadian police, weighs in. The RCMP is not just a mammoth federal force with a long list of responsibilities. As many note, it’s paramilitary in structure (despite touting community policing “at the heart” of what it does).
FROM 2014: Growing militarization of police forces concerning Americans
“The notion of community policing has been really stretched too far — it’s used to refer to all activities now,” says Walby, even though he believes it should only refer to instances in which the police “directly take their influence in their tasks from the community.”
It’s a distinction he acknowledges that not everyone may easily grasp, although he urges people to see militarized policing as “antithetical” to community policing because it tends to categorize issues in terms of threat level rather than categories of criminal law.
“It puts all of the emphasis on use of force,” Walby says, whereas in community policing, “force is a last resort, communication is the main focus.” A spokesperson for the RCMP said use-of-force incidents “are complex, dynamic and constantly evolving. … Police officers must make split-second decisions.”
Changing “hyper-masculine” policing culture
Policing is a “very masculine, hyper-macho profession,” Spillar says. Because of that, there’s this idea that “women don’t really want these jobs, that women can’t do these jobs and if they can, then the men who are doing these jobs are somehow diminished.”
The whole environment is then set up, she says, so that “women are routinely reminded they are imposters and they don’t belong there.”
WATCH: Alice Clark on the sexual harassment and culture of bullying in the RCMP
And yet it makes sense that women would have a beneficial impact on policing, says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.
“A common line of thinking would assert that women officers are less likely to have the benefit of size and to a lesser extent, physical strength, to draw upon as resources,” Owusu-Bempah says. “Therefore, they would be more likely to rely on verbal communication to achieve their goals.”
The research that women can help not just reduce misconduct and use of force dates back decades. It was mentioned in the 1991 Christopher Commission report, which looked at the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of cops’ brutal beating of Rodney King.
That report, which highlighted repetitive use of excessive force, found there were no women among the 120 officers with the most use of force reports. While the commission didn’t find women police officers to be reluctant to use force, it did find that “a suspect’s defiance and disrespect of an officer often gives rise to use of force.” It also found that:
The women, unlike the men, “are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language.”
That makes sense when you consider how men and women are socialized differently, explains Annahid Dashtgard, a diversity and inclusion specialist in Toronto, whose work includes working with police forces. Where the idea stumbles, she says, is when the solution is then expressed in simple terms: hire more women and solve the problem.
“Police forces are micro-cultures and they’re often militaristic,” Dashtgard says.
“What happens for any of us when we move into a particular culture is it’s very difficult for us to hold ourselves separate from that culture.”
WATCH: A criminologist explains how RCMP’s structure leaves members the option to, “conform or leave”
Meaning women might join a police force with a public service motivation, but she wonders, “how much are you going to be able to hold yourself separate from the culture or influence the culture itself?”
Many of the people disproportionately subjected to violence at the hands of police are not white. Adding more women, without ensuring a diversity of women and training to counter the inherent biases that “we all have,” won’t necessarily bring about culture change, Dashtgard says.
“None of us are separate from the powerful default setting of our bias, particularly in moments where our thinking part of our brain is offline, which, in policing — under stressful conditions — is a huge part of the job.”
Communication is key to pushing back against the militarization of Canadian police forces, Walby says.
“When you’ve bred macho masculine male police officers to engage in policing that conceives of people as combatants, as hostiles, you kind of remove the communication part,” he says.
“It’s about gender, but it’s about more than gender too: it’s about being a little less quick to pull the trigger, being a little less quick to drawn the gun, being a little bit more communicative.”
— with files from The Associated Press