Notes from the Field

Cops, Crime, and Working with Women

March 4, 2009

Some may be surprised to discover that Pacific Island nations are leading the way in the international movement to recruit more female police officers in hopes of redressing  violence against women, improving women’s access to justice, and enhancing general safety and security for the entire population.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2007 study of Law Enforcement Employees in the United States, women represent just 11.4 percent of the police force in America. At the same time, 35 percent of Fiji’s police force are women, according to the International Labour Organization. Other Pacific Island nations are also recruiting greater numbers of women into their forces. Lautoa Faletau, Assistant Police Commander of the Tonga Police Force, reported that women comprise 14 percent of the Solomon Islands force, 15 percent of Samoa’s force, and over 20 percent of the force in Tonga.

Recruiting more women to the police force is assumed to be an important component in increasing women’s access to justice . However, there has been a significant lack of empirical research evaluating the impact of women in policing and whether or not more women police officers help to reduce crime — or make the justice system more accessible to women.

Despite this, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) presents anecdotal evidence that female police officers alter the dynamics of policing dramatically. Women officers tend to use unnecessary force less often and are often viewed by their communities as more approachable and less apt to abuse their power. Plus, women officers are perceived to be effective communicators who use negotiation and listening skills more efficiently than their male colleagues.

The UNDP and the Australian Government’s aid agency (AusAID) also believe that including women in the police force to patrol streets, interview victims and witnesses, and conduct investigations will considerably increase the number of women who report gender-related crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual assault – as well as other crimes. UNDP’s experience in some countries also suggests that when men and women patrol together, women, minority groups, and the poor approach police more often for assistance or with information on crimes.

Police forces in Pacific Island nations, as in many parts of the world, are organized in a manner similar to a professional military force, and, like many militaries, are perceived to be male dominated. As cited by both male and female police officers across the Pacific, the widespread perception of policing as a male activity creates significant obstacles to women entering and seeking promotion opportunities within the police force. This challenge is particularly acute in the Pacific, where culturally defined gender roles restrict women’s participation in the formal economy in all areas.

Despite these very real challenges, recent citizen perception surveys conducted in 13 Pacific Island nations, as part of the AusAID funded Pacific Regional Policing Initiative, found that most people favored increasing the number of women in the police force. It also revealed that men, as well as women, recognize violence against women as a major problem in their communities.

Violence against women is one crime that police are often particularly ill-equipped to deal with. Interviewing victims, collecting evidence, and prosecuting offenders (often spouses and primary breadwinners) requires a specific set of skills, procedures — and empathy. Though the information available is patchy and inconsistent due largely to universal under-reporting, a recent AusAID study cites that according to previous studies 13% of the female population in Fiji has been raped; 55% of women in Papua New Guinea have been forced into sex against their will; and in both countries, 66-67% of women have been physically assaulted by their husbands.

As demonstrated by the investment of the Australian and New Zealand governments in the Pacific Islands Regional Policing Initiative, both countries are making significant efforts to support the recruitment and training of women police in the region. As reported by Kasanita Seruvatu, Training Advisor to the Fiji Police, Fiji has appointed women to senior management positions within the police force, implemented a rigorously enforced policy of “Zero Tolerance” for sexual harassment, and overhauled recruitment criteria that systemically disadvantaged women. For instance, assessments of physical size and strength were replaced with criteria that assess essential policing skills — problem-solving, mediation, and communication.

Vanuatu’s national police force has increased its recruitment of women police officers, established a Family Protection unit with experienced police trained to respond appropriately and sensitively to domestic violence cases, designated a private space for interviewing female victims, and trained staff to refer women to the Vanuatu Women’s Centre, where appropriate. The Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) created a public sector management course for women, driver training for women officers, and a formal mentoring program for women officers.

While the results of these initiatives have shown success in recruiting and promoting women in the police force in some countries, in other instances, there has been very limited improvement. This is partly due to severe management, training, and discipline challenges — and strong resistance from within the police force to “equal opportunity” rules that appear to advantage women. These issues have limited the ability of some Pacific governments to advance women in this area.

Recruiting and promoting women officers is just one facet of the complex challenge of managing crime, reducing violence against women, and helping police to serve women and the broader community more effectively. With more research on women’s contribution to safety and security, it could prove to be an important component of the broader movement to improve policing and community-police relations.

Rosita MacDonald is a Program Officer in the The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at rmacdonald@asiafound-dc.org.

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