Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

The progress of women in law enforcement is a story that should be preserved for today’s police officers. It is also a story of how policy evolves.

Women now retiring after 20 or 30 years of service joined law enforcement when it was a less than welcoming environment that offered slights, inconveniences and even schemes to cause them to fail. In the not too distant past, women were required to wear skirts and little hats, forbidden to make an arrest without a male officer present, or assigned to work only with women or juvenile offenders.

Through lawsuits, federal mandates and persistence, equality in the workplace for women has advanced. While challenges and opportunities for making police agencies reflect the communities they serve still abound, perhaps the profession can be more proactive in policy development, anticipating major social and cultural movements rather than responding to complaints and lawsuits.

Issues of equal treatment are still under the microscope. Most recently the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual misconduct. In the context of other social and cultural changes, including fluidity of sexual identity and LGBTQ awareness, sensitivity to workplace attitudes is a leadership issue that requires forward thinking and collaborative policy-making with subject matter stakeholders in and out of the law enforcement circle.

A good time to review policy

At the very least, police leaders should take a few minutes to review their existing agency policy on issues regarding sexual harassment and equal opportunity.

Comparing policy to behaviors and conversations noted within the ranks is a starting point to assess whether your workplace is one free of sexual harassment. Supervisors must remember that the mere existence of a policy is no protection from liability if behavior that violates the policy is accepted in the workplace. It will always be the accepted and tacitly endorsed behavior that will be considered the real policy, regardless of words on a page in the policy manual.

Items to review include:

Are your selection and promotion processes gender neutral in language, practice and outcome? Is there a policy allowing employees to circumvent the chain of command in order to express concerns or complaints about sexual harassment, with clear guidelines for reporting? Does the policy clearly define what sexual harassment is and what it looks like? Does the policy provide for preventive, corrective and disciplinary action for violations of policy? Does training emphasize that what may look like consent to policy-violating behavior and speech may be a product of implicit bias or fear of subtle or explicit retaliation? Does the agency culture include an expectation of peer support and social support of equal treatment? Simple respect

Establishing a culture of respect and equal opportunity is an ideal worth working toward. Until then, treating others as you would want to be treated is the best rule to live by.

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