Gender Rap: Women in Portland Police use excessive force far less than men

The Portland Police Bureau has a problem with excessive use of force, but the women who serve as officers aren’t to blame.

Across the board, female officers account for a far smaller share of the use of force by Portland police, and represent a tiny share of legal settlements for excessive force compared to male officers. They are also involved in a far smaller share of shootings, relative to their numbers in the bureau.

Female officers in the bureau say they use force when necessary but more often employ other tactics, including what one veteran officer called a “mommy voice,” to de-escalate situations that can lead to a need for force.

Yet the bureau isn’t taking full advantage of the lessons of its female officers. Police officials say only one of the 22 officers in the bureau’s Training Division is female.

“We would be as open as anybody for exploring the disparity in case there is something that can be learned from it,”  says Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson. “If there is something that can be gleaned from it, we want to do that.”

Police officials say they see no reason female officers cannot serve in the same capacity as sworn male officers in the bureau, and police brass continue to try to recruit more women.

“I’m proud of the work that has been done by the [bureau’s] personnel division in their recruiting of women and minorities to the Police Bureau,” Chief Mike Reese said in a statement to WW. “My expectation is that we continue to recruit diverse candidates to the Police Bureau in the years to come.”

Meanwhile, the bureau still has its all-male enclaves—including the Special Emergency Response Team, or SERT. And police officials claim they don’t track even the most basic statistics to help them understand how and why female officers handle situations requiring force differently than men.

“They know it,” says retired Lt. Michelle Lish, who retired from the force in 2006 after 25 years as a Portland police officer. “They might not maintain it, but they know it.”

Portland police have faced allegations of excessive use of force for decades, but the hammer fell in September 2012, when the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the bureau’s “pattern and practice” of excessive force against the mentally ill violated federal law.

The DOJ’s 14-month investigation found  the bureau’s officers too often use a higher level of force than necessary; overuse electronic control weapons or Tasers; and use a disproportionate level of force when responding to minor offenses.

The problems go deeper than the cops on the street, the DOJ found, and include “deficient policy and training, as well as inadequate supervision.”

The Police Bureau and the DOJ have reached a settlement aimed at fixing problems cited in the investigation.

The bureau has a proud history that includes hiring the first female police officer in the U.S. and two female police chiefs, including the first female chief of a big-city department. The bureau has known for a long time its female officers use force differently than men. A 2009 report by the city auditor found that Portland’s female officers filed an average of 2.2 use-of-force reports that year; male officers filed an average of 3.2 reports.

WW interviewed a half-dozen female officers. They spoke frankly about the challenges they face in a career that’s legendary for being male-dominated, as well as about specific strengths they bring to police work.

Some agreed to speak on the record, for the first time, about differences in their approach compared to male officers.

“[Using less force] is just the nature of the beast of being a female,” Lish says. “Our nurturing nature makes us more inclined to try to reason, try to mitigate the circumstances, try to de-escalate things.”

To Lish, that “nurturing nature” doesn’t interfere with a female officer’s ability to use force when necessary. She recalled one arrest that briefly landed her in the hospital.

But female officers also bring different communication skills to bear upon sensitive situations. Several of the bureau’s female officers recalled playing the gender card in order to keep Tasers and Glocks in their holsters.

“I remember many times when I really sweet-talked a guy to get him in the back of my car,” says Assistant Chief Donna Henderson, currently the bureau’s highest-ranking female. “[One suspect] was 6-foot-6 and weighed 300 pounds, and there was no way I was going to get into a fight with him.”

She’s not alone.

“I’ve been able to use a mommy voice to get people to stop doing what they’re doing,” said Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, who recently moved from a position as the bureau’s recruitment coordinator to police policy director for Mayor Charlie Hales.

That female officers approach problems differently and use force less doesn’t surprise experts. “It’s a woman’s method for dealing with conflict,” says Roy Bedard, a Florida-based consultant and expert in police procedures. “Women tend to have more mental choices. Men almost default to violence.”

Geoffery P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, adds, “Historically, women officers don’t use the same level or type of force, because they have different communication skills.”

The numbers bear this out. Proportionally, Portland’s female officers are involved in shootings far less often than male officers.

Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says the bureau doesn’t maintain a database or list of officer-involved shootings—a fact that surprises some experts.

“If you’re having a hard time getting numbers, there’s a problem there, period,” said Bedard, the police consultant. “They need to be more transparent.”

Failing to track such an important aspect of bureau operations isn’t new. The DOJ report called the bureau’s collection and review of force data inadequate. The bureau, the DOJ said, failed “to collect even basic acceptable force investigative data,” and these gaps were “too many to list.” The city’s settlement with the DOJ calls for the bureau to keep better data.

Copwatch, a police watchdog group, has built a database from newspaper accounts and police reports. The group’s database shows female officers were involved in only 5.7 percent of shootings since 1992—just seven of 123 officer-involved shootings.

“So it’s a dynamic of the skills of the female officer and the concerns of the suspects that don’t want to attack a female officer,” Alpert says. “That’s a pattern that [criminologists] have all found.”

Taxpayers have paid out far less in legal settlements for incidents involving female officers.

The city’s Risk Management Division provided WW with a database showing settlements or verdicts for the plaintiff in 90 police cases from 1992 to 2013 coded “use of force.” Since most large payouts received media attention, WW compared the database with news reports and added a handful of large payouts the city’s list didn’t include.

WW’s findings: Fewer than 1 percent of $11.4 million in city payouts since 1992 stemmed from excessive force by a female officer.

One notable case involved Officer Jennifer Thompson, who in 2007 used a Taser on Hung Minh Tran outside the Cheerful Tortoise at the corner of Southwest 6th Avenue and College Street. The city settled for $81,766 after an arbitrator found Thompson shot Tran in the back with a Taser while he was on his knees with his hands on his head.

Arbitrator Alan Bonebrake called Thompson’s actions “unnecessary, unreasonable and an excessive use of force.”

Henderson says the bureau has already made big gains in reducing the use of force.     “We’ve really made some huge strides in the last couple of years,” she says, “with our [Crisis Intervention Team] program, [and] training people how to communicate.”

Several police officers interviewed by WW say they believe many people the cops deal with are reluctant to become aggressive or violent with a female officer.  “Why officers use force can have complex reasons behind it,” says Simpson, the Police Bureau spokesman. “It could be that suspects are less likely to physically attack female officers. We don’t know that.”

Simpson says another possible explanation for the lower use-of-force statistics for women is that female officers may be given less dangerous assignments. He called patrol duty “the most dangerous job” in the bureau. When he checked, he found that just 14.4 percent of Portland’s patrol officers are women.

That’s close to the overall rate of women on the force, 15.1 percent, and down slightly from the bureau’s historic numbers: 16.7 percent in 2000, according to Copwatch, and 17 percent in 1972, according to an official Police Bureau history.

Until recently, the bureau had no women serving in its Traffic Division. In October, Capt. Kelli Sheffer was assigned to oversee the division after her promotion to captain by Reese in November 2012.

The bureau says no women now serve on the 10-officer K-9 team. Nor are there any women on the 26-officer SERT, which is essentially a SWAT team that responds to the most dangerous police calls, such as hostage situations or calls involving armed, dangerous or barricaded suspects.

The only former female member of SERT, Sgt. Liani Reyna, filed a 2001 complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries alleging she was “forced to resign” after blowing the whistle on the team’s hazing practices, according to reports in The Oregonian.

Her complaint led to discipline against 20 officers, including herself, and the brief disbanding of SERT during the bureau’s investigation.

The Oregonian in 2002 reported BOLI dropped its investigation when Reyna initiated a $1 million lawsuit against the bureau in federal court. She lost a jury verdict in 2005 but continues to work at the bureau.

Police officials say women simply aren’t applying for these jobs. Simpson says only three women applied for the K-9 unit this year, and no women were among the 45 applicants for assignments in traffic or SERT.

Since Reese took over in 2010, bureau recruits have averaged 41 percent minority and female, as opposed to 30 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to Simpson. Reese recently promoted Capt. Sara Westbrook to commander of East Precinct, the largest in the city.

But among the recruits in 2011 and 2012, only 16 percent were women, or about the same as the bureau as a whole.

Part of the problem is the small pool of applicants from which the bureau can draw.  Having a diverse police department is “easier said than done,” says Eriks Gabliks, director of the Oregon State Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the state’s police academy. He says police work isn’t an easy sell for many young women, in Oregon or elsewhere.

“If we have 10 percent [women], that might be average or that might be high,” Gabliks says. “You really have to work with who’s in the pot, and are they qualified.”

Wesson-Mitchell says the bureau could make an administrative change to create promotion opportunities for female officers by returning to a “dual list” policy: using a single test for officers to become either detective or sergeant.

The gender difference between the two jobs is significant: 28.7 percent of detectives are women, compared to 11.8 percent of sergeants, according to the bureau.

Simpson, the police spokesman, says the bureau had such a policy from 1996 to 2001.

Currently, he adds, sergeants and detectives can both apply for lieutenant. “Most lieutenants and above came from the sergeant rank,” he says. “Sergeants are simply better prepared.”

Wesson-Mitchell, however, says detectives have shown plenty of ability to supervise and lead.

“When something happens out on the street, who do they call to come and manage it? Detectives,” she says. “They’re doing supervisory action.”

Mary-Beth Baptista, who recently retired as director of the city’s Independent Police Review Division, says the bureau’s biggest struggle with female officers is not hiring them but keeping them.

“I think they are making sincere efforts, I really do,” Baptista says. “My bigger concern is, once they have more diversity, how do they keep them? Has the bureau really thought about ways to ensure that these [women] feel comfortable there?

“It’s not whether you can find [women officers] to hire. It’s whether they stay and they succeed.”

This article was published by Willamette Week on December 10, 2013.


The “Gender Rap” article brought a strong reaction from the Portland Police Bureau, namely the following press release — which, ironically, itself misspelled the name of the writer it was accusing of “inaccuracies”: Willamette Week printed no correction.

Police Bureau Corrects Inaccuracies in Newspaper Article Published Today

Portland Police Badge
Portland Police Badge

December 11, 2013 23:12

A recent article, (“Gender Rap,” Willamette Week, December 11, 2013) contained several inaccuracies. Unfortunately the writer, Thatcher Schmid, omitted information that fundamentally affects how the Police Bureau and its treatment of women is portrayed in the article.

The story stated: “Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says the bureau doesn’t maintain a database or list of officer-involved shootings – a fact that surprises some experts.”

This statement is inaccurate and untrue. The writer requested a list of officer-involved shootings going back two decades broken down by the gender of the officers involved. The Bureau absolutely maintains records of all officer-involved shootings; what the writer was told was the Bureau does not break the officers out by gender.

In addition, the writer states: “Simpson says another possible explanation for the lower use-of-force statistics for women is that female officers may be given less dangerous assignments.”

This statement was never made by Sgt. Simpson and completely fabricated. The writer asked the question: “Are female officers in positions that would put them in harm’s way as much as the men?” Sgt. Simpson responded that patrol duty is “the most dangerous job” in the Bureau, which the article accurately quotes.

Other information provided to the writer which was omitted from the article include:

* The Bureau’s Bomb Squad has one female member out of a total of 6.
* The Bureau’s Crisis Negotiation Team, which often works closely with SERT, has four female negotiators out of a total of 16.
* Both Assistant Chief Donna Henderson and Lieutenant Rachel Andrew promoted upward from the rank of Detective.

Women in policing is a topic that deserves attention and thoughtful discussion. The Police Bureau remains committed to recruiting and training women as police officers, and will continue to be transparent and forthright around issues surrounding this topic. It is our hope that when journalists report on this subject, they do so with accuracy and the intent to tell the entire story factually.

Media Relations:
Sgt. Pete Simpson
Desk: 503-823-0830
Pager: 503-790-1779
Portland Police Bureau
1111 SW 2nd Ave, Suite 1526
Portland, Oregon 97204