Penny Harrington, the USA’s 1st Female Chief of Police
The NextWomen Career Theme: Law Enforcement.
For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and male dominated professions. This is the story of Penny Harrington, the USA’s first female Chief of Police for a major city, who also founded The National Center for Women & Policing, an organization which specializes in gender issues in law enforcement.
Penny Harrington began her police career in 1964 as a “policewoman” in the Women’s Protective Division of the Portland Oregon Police Bureau. After a few years, she began challenging the policies that prevented women from working in all aspects of policing and prevented them from taking promotional exams. Penny then became the first woman to be promoted to Detective in 1970, Sergeant in 1970, Lieutenant in 1977, Captain in 1980 and was appointed as Chief of Police in 1985, making her the first woman to lead a major-city police department.
After leaving Portland, Penny went on to work for the State Bar of California where she developed the policies, procedures and training for attorney ethics investigations.
The Los Angeles Police Commission and the Los Angeles City Council heard about Penny’s work and asked her to help them deal with the issues of the Rodney King beating, the riots and the resulting aftermath. She was also asked to assist with designing a recruiting program for women; examining gender issues in the department; and working on issues of the LAPD’s handling of officer-involved domestic violence.
During this time, Penny met Kathy Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Together with Jenifer McKenna of the California Women’s Law Center and Connie Rice of the NAACP LDEF, they headed an inquiry into gender issues in the LAPD and wrote a report outlining the problems and the steps needed to correct them.
As a result of her work with the LAPD, Kathy Spillar and Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation asked Penny to establish a national program on gender issues in law enforcement. The result was the National Center for Women & Policing, established in 1995 and headed by Penny as the Director.
The National Center for Women & Policing undertakes research on issues such as the lack of women in law enforcement; the lack of women in the higher ranks; the issues of police excessive force; officer-involved domestic violence; childcare; recruiting; gender discrimination; and harassment.
Penny is the author of “Recruiting & Retaining Women: A Self Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement”, “Investigating Sexual Harassment in Law Enforcement Agencies”, and her autobiography, “Triumph of Spirit.”
We spoke to Penny about the obstacles facing women in law enforcement careers today; about how a day off school led to her career in policing; and about meeting President Clinton!
TNW: Tell us a bit about the National Center for Women & Policing. Why was it founded and what are its goals?
PH: The NCWP grew out of the riots in Los Angeles following the verdicts of the men who beat Rodney King. The Los Angeles Police Commission established a Women’s Advisory Council to examine the LAPD and make recommendations on how they could recruit and retain more women. I was appointed to be one of 4 women to lead the council. Kathy Spillar of the Feminist Majority also held one of those positions. When we finished our work and published “A Blueprint for Gender Equity in the Los Angeles Police Department,” Kathy asked me to come to work for the Feminist Majority and set up the NCWP. The goals of the NCWP were to increase the numbers of women in policing at all levels and improve the response of the police to crimes against women. The US Department of Justice published a book we wrote “Recruiting & Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement” which can be obtained from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
TNW: What are the biggest obstacles facing women in law enforcement careers today?
PH: Unfortunately, the obstacles have not changed much since I started in 1964.
The single biggest obstacle is the culture that is unaccepting of women in law enforcement. There are still entry standards and training programs that wash out women in higher percentages than men.
The culture still values physical strength and use of force and devalues reasoning and negotiating skills. Also, because a great deal of men entering the law enforcement agencies come from the military, they bring those rigid attitudes with them. Now I do want to say here that there are many wonderful men in law enforcement who are supportive of women and who are excellent community officers.
TNW: Have attitudes towards women in law enforcement changed significantly since you were the Portland Chief of Police in the mid-1980s?
PH: I would like to say yes, and in some ways they have. However, the War on Drugs and the War on Crime and every other “war” that the government leaders declare, just reinforce the macho military mentality. Look at the current issues in the military of getting women into combat and you see how that slops over into law enforcement.
TNW: Tell us a little about becoming the first female Chief of Police of a major US city, an incredible achievement. Had this been a longstanding career goal and how did you achieve it? Did you feel supported or undermined by colleagues, on the whole?
PH: Being Chief of Police of Portland was a longstanding career goal. I loved that police department and knew that I could really help make it better. I had never had the goal of being the first female chief, but that was quite an honor.
I achieved the position by a lot of hard work, long hours and by working closely with the community on issues important to them. I also tried to always treat my co-workers with respect.
During the selection process and after my selection, it became pretty cutthroat. One candidate went to some members of the selection committee and attempted to undermine me. That didn’t work. After my selection, there were many captains and deputy chiefs who could not wait to sit in my chair and a union that was furious when officers were being held accountable. It was a constant battle.
TNW: What was the highlight of your career?
PH: Of course, being the 1st woman chief of a major police agency in the U.S. was the highlight, but another one was being on a roundtable with President Bill Clinton and US Attorney General Janet Reno. Also, locating and bringing together command-level women from law enforcement agencies across the nation to work on national crime issues was heartwarming. There are so many brilliant and talented women out there.
TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career in law enforcement?
PH: Get a good education; at least a bachelors and higher if you can. Education is so important to being successful. Recognize that this is a job where physical prowess is highly valued and sometimes necessary and prepare for that. Do not fall into the trap of developing an “us vs. Them” mentality. Keep your friends who are not police officers and stay closely connected to your family. This will keep you grounded in reality. It is easy to see all the world as evil when you deal with evil every day.
TNW: Did you always aspire to a career in law enforcement? If you hadn’t chosen police work, which other career paths might you have taken?
PH: That question made me laugh! When I graduated from high school in 1960, you could be a nurse, a secretary, a teacher or a housewife and that was it. I didn’t like those choices. One day in my senior year to get out of school for the day, I attended a career day at the Lansing, MI police department. There was a policewoman there who took me under her wing for the day.
I was shocked that there was a woman doing this work. I fell in love with the idea of helping and protecting people, especially children.
So, I signed up for college, got my degree in Police Administration from Michigan State University and the rest is history. I did write a book about my life “Triumph of Spirit” which can be found on Amazon.
TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?
PH: I have always admired Eleanor Smeal. I first heard of her when she was the President of NOW. Her words kept me fighting for equality all my life. And I cannot separate our Katherine Spillar, the Vice President of the Feminist Majority and the Publisher of Ms. Magazine. And, of course, who does not admire Hillary Clinton!
TNW: Law enforcement is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) did this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?
PH: It absolutely dominated my life work.
I thought that if you were good at what you did, people would accept you. WRONG! So, I had to fight for equality every day and every year of my career.
And I still work as an expert witness in employment discrimination cases in law enforcement. I have met some wonderful men who treated me with respect and were very supportive. And I have met some who came up to me and told me I was taking a job away from a man and I should quit. I have been “tested” to see if I could stand the heat physically and emotionally.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?
PH: The most important thing that i want to say to young women in all fields is this: Stand up and fight to be treated equally. Too many women cave in when the pressure gets tough. There are generations of women who have paved the way for you with their sweat and tears. You owe it to us to not give up the ground we gained so that you can have the career of your dreams.
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