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Women’s Police Organization Celebrates Centennial

About 12% of the nation’s 670,000 sworn officers are women, according to the FBI.

By University Alliance on January 29, 2015
Strengthening Women in Criminal Justice

Over the past 100 years, the International Association of Women Police has played an integral role in the advancement of women in law enforcement. Indeed, the history of the IAWP and women in law enforcement are intertwined, reflected by the organization’s mission statement: To strengthen, unite and raise the profile of women in criminal justice internationally.

The IAWP was originally organized as the International Policewomen’s Association (IPA) in 1915. Alice Stebbins Wells, a pioneer in women’s policing, was the association’s first president. Wells had been classified as the nation’s first policewoman in 1910 following her petitions to the mayor, police commissioner and city council of Los Angeles, according to the IAWP website.

Wells was sworn in on Sept. 12, 1910, and received a telephone call box, a police rule book, a first aid book and a badge. She went to work with the LAPD’s first juvenile officer, patrolling skating rinks, dance halls and other youth hangouts. The department added two more female officers in 1912 and had hired 39 women officers by 1937. Wells retired in 1940.

Wells served as president of the IPA from its founding until 1923. The association was disbanded in 1932, a casualty of the Great Depression and other factors. It was revived in 1956 at a meeting of the Women Peace Officers of California and renamed the International Association of Women Police. Lois Higgins, a veteran of the Chicago Police Department, was named president.

“An effective International Association would serve as a clearinghouse for information,” Higgins said at the meeting, according to the organization’s records. “Through it the wisdom and experience of the policewomen of all member nations will be pooled for the common benefit.”

Higgins promoted the IAWP in lectures and through radio and television appearances. Membership grew and what had been biannual meetings became annual training conferences that continue to the present day. The IAWP continued to set the agenda for women police officers in the turbulent 1960s and into the 1970s, advocating for equality in promotions, pay and assignments. In the early 1970s, the organization withdrew its support for separate women’s bureaus within police departments.   

In 1996, the IAWP held its annual conference in Birmingham, England, the first time the meeting had been held outside North America. By 2001, the IAWP had grown to 2,400 members from more than 45 countries. The organization, which now has members from about 60 countries, will commemorate its 100th anniversary during its August 2015 conference in Cardiff, Wales.

Women in Top Ranks of Law Enforcement

The number of women working as law enforcement officers in the United States has grown at a relatively modest rate over the past 20 years.

According to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, about 12% of the nation’s 670,000 sworn officers were women as of 2012, up from 9.8% in 1995. By comparison, more than 60% of the nation’s 286,000 non-sworn law enforcement employees are women, according to the FBI.

However, the slow growth rate hasn’t stopped women from rising through the ranks to take leadership roles in a number of high-level law enforcement agencies. For example, Stacia A. Hylton has led the U.S. Marshals Service since 2010. As director, the criminal justice graduate oversees more than 5,500 employees and a $1.19 billion annual budget.

Polly Hanson was appointed chief of the Amtrak Police Department in 2012. Hanson, who began her career as a police dispatcher, leads a department of more than 500 employees responsible for the safety and security of Amtrak riders nationwide.

Additionally, Michele M. Leonhart has led the federal Drug Enforcement Administration since 2007, when she was named acting administrator of the agency she joined in 1980 as a special agent. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed her to the permanent role in 2010 following her nomination by President Barack Obama. Leonhart, who has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, directs an organization of more than 10,000 employees stationed throughout the United States as well as in 63 other countries. The DEA’s annual budget tops $2 billion.  

Category: 2015 Headlines