Even when she worked as the only female officer in Athens County, Sheriff’s Deputy Jen Atkins said she didn’t have trouble with the men she worked with.
“It wasn’t ever hard,” Atkins said. “I came in and from day one, I had 25 brothers I never knew I wanted.”
Now, Atkins is one of four full-time, sworn female officers who work in the three law enforcement departments based in the city of Athens. Of the other three, one works for the Athens Police Department and two work for the Ohio University Police Department.
APD also recently hired another female officer. She starts work Oct. 3, according to APD Chief Tom Pyle.
Women make up about 12 percent of police officers nationwide, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, though more than half the country’s population is female. Officials at APD, OUPD and the sheriff’s office all say they want more women to work for them, but departments often struggle to recruit them.
Sheriff Rodney Smith said his department recruits from the police academy at Hocking College and other local schools. He said members of his department are trying to recruit more diverse officers in general, but there simply aren’t many women interested in the job.
“To be honest, we haven’t had a lot of applications,” he said.
OUPD Detective Brittney Cottrill said women sometimes bring a “different demeanor” to law enforcement. Usually she said she sees no difference in the way female and male officers handle calls, and that when she does, the women sometimes get better results because male subjects are less combative with them.
“Sometimes when males are dealing with male subjects, they can butt heads,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the male officer, I think it’s maybe the male subjects that they’re dealing with … They’re trying to be the alpha male.”
A study from researchers at the University of Illinois suggested that female officers use less force. Atkins said that is likely because female officers tend to be smaller, which places them at a disadvantage during physical confrontations with even average-sized male subjects. So she said female officers tend to rely more on verbal tactics to de-escalate such incidents.
“We call it verbal judo,” she said. “You’ve got to learn to talk those situations down and not let them get to that point. Because you have to look at this realistically — our biggest goal each day is to go home safe.”
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Zurich suggested women were more likely to report violent crimes committed against them, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, to a department that had female officers on the force. Both Atkins and Cottrill said that appears to be true at their departments.
Atkins said women might be uncomfortable talking to a man about intimate crimes committed against them, especially in cases where they have been abused or assaulted by a man.
“I mean, that female’s just been violated in a way that no one can understand unless they’ve been in those shoes,” she said. “At that point, she’s feeling incredibly vulnerable. She maybe doesn’t want to talk to males at all.”
Misconceptions about law enforcement might be deterring more women from pursuing careers in the field as well, Atkins said. She said TV shows make police work look intensely physical and intimidating.
Atkins said she spends more time responding to nonviolent crimes, such as online harassment and theft, than she does violent ones. Her training prepared her for the incidents that do get physical, though.
“You know, I didn’t come into law enforcement a street brawler,” she said. “I learned to handle myself and protect myself through my training.”
Cottrill said women may overestimate the amount of sexism they would face on a police force. She said she herself hasn’t faced any resistance, which was a “pleasant surprise.”
Cottrill and Atkins both said the men with whom they work have been supportive from the start.
Cottrill said she would tell young women considering law enforcement careers “to go for it.”
“And if you’re afraid of stuff that you’d be experiencing in the field ... know that a lot of that isn’t true,” she said. “You know, we’d definitely be happy to have them in the field.