The reality of the need for police reform hit the headlines this year as a result of interactions with unarmed black men that resulted in several deaths. Findings of the Department of Justice in cities like Ferguson and Cleveland that police departments engaged in the pattern and practice of racial discrimination and brutality highlighted the problem.

That discussion reminded me of an interaction I witnessed back in the early 1990’s. I was working closely with the Deputy Chief of an urban police department on fundraising for a charitable campaign during the time that the department hired a new Chief who was dedicated to implementing community policing initiatives. One potential donor we met with was obviously more interested in those changes than he was in our charitable cause and asked the Deputy Chief a lot of questions about what was happening. At one point the Deputy Chief said, “This police department will be where it needs to be when over half the officers are women, because police work is mostly about negotiating and women tend to be better at that.”

I have to say that I was a bit shocked to hear that. Leaving aside that he was making some pretty big stereotypical generalizations about men and women, that was not the kind of thing you expected to hear from someone in the highest echelons of such a male-dominated profession. But over the years I watched as the department made a lot of headway on effective reforms based, not so much on the activities in which they engaged, but the quality of people who were hired and promoted in the department.

So you can imagine why I’d be interested in an article by Katherine Spillar titled: How More Female Police Officers Would Help Stop Police Brutality.

In fact, over the last 40 years, studies have shown that female officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, less reliant on physical force and are more effective communicators. Most importantly, female officers are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations before those encounters turn deadly.

Spiller goes on to recount some of the research on this and then says that in 2007 (the last year for which data is available), only 12% of police officers were women. She then gives several reasons for why that figure is still so low.

Too many police recruiting campaigns feature slick brochures and billboards focused on adrenaline-fueled car chases, swat incidents and helicopter rescues – the kind of policing featured in television dramas and that overwhelmingly appeals to male recruits. In reality, 80 percent to 95 percent of police work involves nonviolent, service-related activities and interactions with people in the community to solve problems – the kind of policing that appeals to women.

The tests used in the selection and hiring of police recruits are also a problem. Based on the discredited presumption that brute strength is a key requirement for successful performance as a police officer, the vast majority of police agencies use some form of physical abilities testing in their hiring process. These tests tend to emphasize upper-body strength and disqualify some women – and men of slight stature. Yet physical strength has never been shown to predict a police officer’s effectiveness or ability to handle dangerous situations. Instead, testing should focus on an applicant’s communication skills and ability to defuse potential violence and maintain composure in situations of conflict.

Finally, as in the military and other traditionally male dominated work forces, female officers face high rates of sexual harassment and negative male attitudes.

All of this is important because, while President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing includes some important recommendations, there is nothing in their final report that addresses these issues. To me, that suggests that we still have a long way to go in even understanding the problem…much less solving it.

This isn’t solely about the gender of police officers. The root of the problem lies in how we define the work of police officers, which then affects the ways in which we recruit and train them. As long as we continue to believe that physical dominance is the major skill required in this work, we will continue to have problems with brutality in its implementation.

My initial shock at what that Deputy Chief said back in the 90’s was about the need for over half of their officers to be women. But I now realize that the truly significant thing he grasped was that police work is mostly about negotiating. That’s actually the most radical thing he said. And if we’re ever going to really reform our police departments, it is with that awareness that we must start.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.