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The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs of the "Lady Cop"

Surviving in, and changing, the macho copshop, and how to cope with your police stress.

I try to understand police stress from many points of view. But I am what I am (though I don’t believe the common male delusion that I’m superior for being able to avail myself of these handsome porcelain facilities on the walls of police restrooms. Okay, ladies, the typical copshop male restroom isn’t quite as posh as this one.

My own wife, who is a librarian, a good old fashioned “female job”, has been a cranberry grower in the male dominated world of farming for eight years and I’ve learned a lot from her since she’s the real owner of this farming enterprise we have been in for eight year. She’s the third generation cranberry grower in her family. But farming isn’t law enforcement. Bargaining for a used excavator with a hairy chested tobacco-chewing heavy equipment dealer, or being the only female at an Ocean Spray committee meeting, isn’t the same as being the only female officer on a shift or even in an entire department. No executive at Ocean Spray is going to leave a Penthouse Magazine in my wife’s pick-up truck, or expect her to prove she’s “one of the boys” by tolerating locker room humor. Nor is it nearly the same as being a female correction officer alone with sixty male sex offenders when her partner calls in sick. And what is she to think when it is common practice to have a sub called in when a male officer’s partner is out sick? In law enforcement, the “ladycop” isn’t always treated like a “lady”.

In fact, you don’t expect it, and you should, just as your male counterparts expect, no, demand, to be treated like “gentlemen”. When treated poorly by the bosses, male cops are likely to grieve to the union, females are more likely just to grieve!

The good news: time is on your side.

No matter how bad it is for you, it will get better if you stick it out. Just as it was for female doctors twenty years ago, when each medical school graduating class only had a few women in it, your time will come. And pretty soon. Now half of all medical school graduates are women. Police academy percentages are rising too. Women have proven themselves on the job, but so far the numbers just aren’t there to have as much impact on male perceptions within the job as you will have in a few years. But in the military women have already proven themselves in large numbers and this is already having a positive effect in law enforcement. Many men who served with women in the Gulf (older officers in the reserves and younger ones just hiring on) are sharing positive attitudes and impressions with their male colleagues.

Going along to get along

All too frequently, women who become police officers find that to get along they have be “one of the guys”, and to talk and behave in ways at best they find a strain and at worst, repulsive. In some departments there is what has been called a locker room mentality among the male officers. By this is meant a boys junior high school gym locker room. Can you imagine as a junior high school girl, feeling comfortable in the boys locker room? I don’t mean to indict all police department, of course. Many chiefs across the country hire personnel who are mature and have successfully grown out of their adolescent preoccupation with sex and their tendency to treat women as objects.

Can you be too smart?

Female officers also may find that they have more education, or unlike many of their male colleagues actually paid attention, studied and did their own homework while in school. The may not be “street smart” as rookies the way male officers mean the term,; but they are often more wise to the ways of the world. The woman who dares to come across as too smart, however, is likely to be resented. So if you have your eye on promotions, you have to be very careful how you go about proving yourself. Otherwise, even when to come out number one on the sergeant exam and get those stripes, you will be resented by your subordinates.

Fighting the good fight

It is a shame that equality often must be won on the heels of tragic cases of discrimination, harassment and even violence against female officers. An example of the later occurred last year here in Massachusetts as reported in the April 24, 1998 Boston Globe. State Police Director Col. Reed Hillman stated, on the heels of an out-of-court settlement of $290,000 to a female trooper raped on the job by one male trooper and sexually harassed by another, “we have made mistakes. I will take every step to make sure every female in this agency feels her talents are valued.” Last year a female trooper won a $90,000 lawsuit when female bathroom and shower facilities were demolished at Logan Airport to make room for a troopers workout area. A group of pregnant troopers have also filed a discrimination lawsuit. It is a shame that periodically I receive emails from around the country from female officers who have been forced to “go to war against their own department” in order to redress wrongs against them. In fact, I wrote the article here , in part with these officers in mind.

It is a shame that women in law enforcement have to go to court, the media, and to antidiscrimination commissions to redress wrongs that never should have happened in the first place. Here is my response to an email that sadly is typical of many I receive from female officers who have been discriminated against:

I’m sorry to hear about your problems. Unfortunately they are not unusual. Sexual discrimination and sexual harassment in police departments is all too common. Unfortunately it is difficult to prove. And equally unfortunate is how many good female cops “go along to get along”; until things go too far and something becomes intolerable.

I can’t tell you about the cases I’ve been involved in because of confidentiality. Suffice to say, win or loose, the fight take a huge emotional toll. Of course it is better to win, and I hope you do. Just be aware that the negative effects can take years to wear off. Make sure you demand that the city pay for ongoing therapy for as long as you need it – most insurance companies won’t cover the outpatient therapy you will probably need. When it reaches the point I wrote about (in the article about going to battle against your own department), you have to pull out all the stops and rally your forces for a long, demanding battle. If possible, attack on more than one front: your union, your state anti-discrimination agency, personal law suit, media publicity, your state rep. and state senator. A class action suit often strikes terror into the bosses and the town lawyer because settlement can be huge. But even in individual suits, quarter- million dollar settlements aren’t unheard of for combined personal and punitive damages.

By the way, you may have been underdiagnosed (by your psychotherapist). Read the DSM-IV (APA diagnostic manual) and see if you fit the criteria for PTSD or one of the anxiety disorders. A common everyday diagnosis is often used because it has less stigma, and therapist may want to protect you from having an accurate but more severe diagnosis “on the books”, but being underdiagnosed won’t help you with an award for personal damages. Your diagnosis should be accurate. I hope some of this helps. Best of luck. Let me know when you win.

Stand up and be counted

You can’t easily relieve yourselves of a half a night’s coffee intake at 3:00AM standing behind a dumpster behind the Seven-11; but let’s admit it, you don’t really want to. But guys being guys, some of them anyway, they think that because they can do it standing up, they’re somehow superior whether it is in a fancy bathroom or against a tree. And you have to cope with this attitude of superiority, day in, day out. And what does it all boil down to from the man’s viewpoint? That’s he’s stronger physically? You know that’s a crock. I’ve seen strong male officers practically have a coronary when they had to chase some dirtbag around the block. When I was active as a reserve officer I never liked to fight, and found as most women do, that frequently words make a more effective weapon than fists or a baton. I suppose some officers might consider me a wuss, or worse, a word used to connote a male, possibly gay, with feminine characteristics. But don’t you think that a male officer who would say this would also consider using their intelligence, and empathy, to talk down a violent subject instead of using physical force might also be one who has a negative attitude about women in law enforcement? How many male officers like this have you met? How many do you work with? How many are command officers in your department? If your answers add up to more than zero, then you probably have some police stress.

The bottom line

Here’s another quiz:

What is the most important tool police officers carry to assure their survival?

Hint, it isn’t on, in, around, or under their belt.

If you answer this question “wrong”, your life is in jeopardy.

Click here for answer

Are male officers immune to police stress? No way. If they are immersed in the ultimately self-destructive “macho mystique” they will tend to deny the signs and symptoms of police stress: anxiety and depression aren’t considered very manly. And seeking police stress counseling? They’d sooner have a root canal. Strength is as much mental as physical anyway. Do you know many men who could handle natural child birth?

Male cops who don’t recognize the effects of police stress, and who don’t change if they need to do so, will on average die ten years earlier than men who take care of themselves mentally. As it is, men die earlier than women. And cops die sooner after retiring than members of most other professions. Why subtract even more years, guys?


When things start to get you down, remember the lion. For all his striking good looks and fearsome roar, the male lion is a lazy beast who is dependent on the lioness to hunt and feed him. It is the female lion that stalks and kills the game. And this is in addition to bearing and protecting cubs.

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