The petite preacher from Kansas raised her right hand to solemnly swear the unimaginable: an oath to become a Los Angeles police officer.In pinning on that “Policeman” badge 100 years ago today, Policewoman Alice Stebbins Wells shattered an exclusive mens’ world at police stations across Los Angeles, the nation and the globe.But would she ever make arrests? That was the question asked by a skeptical press and public.
“I don’t want to make arrests,” declared the Bible-toting mother of two with a penchant for social work. “I want to keep people from needing to be arrested, especially young people.”
To mark the centennial of the world’s first female officer, the Los Angeles Police Department is celebrating a century of progress in policing. A news event is planned for Monday.From skirted policewomen to today’s genderless roles as police officers, L.A.’s women cops have pioneered change in universal law enforcement.They include the nation’s first black and Latina cops, decades before civil rights legislation.
And they have become powerful female role models on TV, in movies and beyond.
For not only have women busted down barriers from equal pay to same-sex training to identical uniforms and the shared dangers of patrolling the city streets, they now occupy some of the loftiest ranks of the world’s most famous police department.
“It’s a very proud moment,” Assistant Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur, a 30-year police veteran and the LAPD’s highest-ranking woman, said during an interview in her top-floor office at the new Police Administration Building.
“It’s a tough job. A lot of women had to work really hard.
“Today, I believe in my heart of hearts that we are viewed as equal. We’re tacticians. We’re leaders. We’re everything that our male counterparts are. The LAPD can be proud that the LAPD has led the country.”
Hollywood affair with uniforms
MacArthur, who grew up a tomboy, aspired to become a cop after watching prime-time TV police shows as such as “Adam-12,” followed by woman cop shows that dovetailed with greater women rights as officers during the early 1970s.
Hollywood capitalized on the growing number of female police officers with TV series that reflected — and, some say — accelerated the trend.
In 1974, blonde bombshell Angie Dickinson starred as LAPD Sgt. Leanne “Pepper Anderson” in the groundbreaking “Police Woman.” The program was not only the first to showcase a female police officer, but the first successful hour-long drama to feature a woman in the title role.
“I knew I’d never have her legs,” joked MacArthur, shoving a polished combat boot and cuff from beneath her desk. “So I went with the uniformed pants and boots.”
“Charlie’s Angels” premiered two years later, with the three leading characters opting to become private investigators after being saddled with menial jobs on the police force.
Women officers earned their shields in 1982 with the debut of “Cagney and Lacey,” an Emmy Award-winning police drama that partnered two strong leading female detectives.
And finally, for Monday night’s series finale of TNT’s “The Closer,” the fictional Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson may learn whether she’s won the coveted post as head of the LAPD.
Proving their valor in the field
MacArthur, who sailed through the police academy in 1980, never figured she’d rise above lieutenant. Back then, there were only 178 women on the force, less than 2 percent of the LAPD, few with brass.
And back then, the macho vets of the black-and-whites asked if something should ever hit the fan, whether the women cops could be there for them. Or in the absence of men, whether they’d be able to hold their own.
Some even told at least one woman partner, “Don’t worry about a thing, honey, because I’m man enough for both of us.”
But the police women officers proved themselves with valor. There’s an old saying in the LAPD: “We all bleed blue.”
Three women L.A. officers gave the ultimate sacrifice, while others have been shot – or paralyzed – on the job.
On her first patrol through Venice (now Pacific) Division, MacArthur got in a tussle with a man causing problems at the beach.
“I put a karate-hold on him. And later on I thought, `Wow, this is really fun. This was something I really like to do.’ I knew I could do the job.”
Today, there are nearly 1,900 women, or 19 percent of the nearly 10,000 officers, who “protect and serve” the city.
Of those, one is deputy chief, three serve as commanders, 17 as captains. One is a member of the elite SWAT unit, others serve on the bomb squad or as Robbery-Homicide detectives, helicopter pilots, motorcycle officers and more.
“Literally every assignment has women assigned to it, and they do extremely well,” said Chief Charlie Beck, at a recent news conference. “They’re not assigned because they’re women.
“They’re assigned because they’re good at it.”
Fighting for equality
Early one morning last week, a dozen officers sat for roll call at Topanga Station in Canoga Park, including two women officers.
It was 6:45 a.m., and in the front row sat rookie Officer Amanda Kruse, 29, who’d graduated Aug. 13 at the top of her class at the police academy.
On a nearby wall read an adage, “Change begins with the courage of one.”
A century earlier, the 37-year-old Wells, 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, had reported for duty after a bitter fight to ultimately wear the badge reading “Policewoman No. 1.”
She earned $75 a month, lower than her male counterparts, and equivalent to wages earned by jail matrons and janitors, according to LAPD historians.
While Wells had arrest powers, she initially hit the streets in plain attire armed with only a police rulebook and a call-box key.
In a city known for vice and corruption, Wells patrolled dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades other public venues where women and children gathered.
Like the progressive reformers of her era, Wells fought to make Los Angeles a more wholesome place. Her first year on the job, she made 13 arrests.
After she traveled the nation championing the cause of policewomen, more than two dozen cities followed L.A.’s lead and countries such as Canada, England and Australia were close behind.
“I am doing everything I can to make people see the need of women in the police department,” said Wells, who retired in 1940 and died in 1957.
“But all one woman can do is very little. She can but find the needs and point the way. Where she leaves off, many women may begin and do much toward the betterment of social conditions.”
Subtle gender differences
Many are in awe of the early woman police pioneers, and what hard-working women cops accomplished later.
Detective Deborah Gonzales, a former Army MP from Brooklyn, knew at age 14 that she wanted to become a cop after witnessing a woman being beaten up by her boyfriend in a Long Beach park.
“I didn’t see any police around. I said, `When I grow up, I want to be there and help those who can’t help themselves,”‘ she said.
Now a 29-year veteran with many stints in the field, she directs the LAPD’s Risk Management Division and serves as president of the Los Angeles Women Police Officers and Associates, an agency that Wells co- founded.
When she first went on patrol, Gonzales said, she’d tell older officers to let her show them what she could do.
“I showed ’em,” she said. On patrol. On detectives. While posing as a prostitute on Sepulveda Boulevard in vice. “Someday,” she said, “we’ll see a woman police chief.”
While some women officers wish to steer clear of the Mars-Venus debate of whether and how male and female officers differ, others see subtle differences, even virtues, in the sexes.
One female field trainer sees male recruits who cry and female recruits who don’t live up to the stereotype of women communicators. Older male officers are more protective of women, she said, the younger ones less so.
“When you have a woman field training officer,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous, “we’re definitely harder on the women than the men are.
“It’s like you’re creating a product … You want an officer who is just as competent as you, and not considered the weaker sex.”
Other women officers would like to see more latitude for preferences — like shoes.
“I love shoes, I love shoes,” joked Cmdr. Jeri Weinstein, head of the Employee Relations Group, known for her penchant for designer footwear. “I’ve tried for years to see if we could wear high heels. They said no.
“I just gotta tell ya, you can’t (scale a wall, chase a suspect) in a pair of Manolo Blahniks. You’ve gotta have black boots.”
Rising up to take advantage
MacArthur, the deputy chief, has a patrol policy of 1+1=3. That is, one female and one male police officer partnering together offer the best overall police advantage.
“Women bring a different perspective,” said MacArthur, whose son now serves on the force. “And it’s a valuable perspective – our experiences are what makes us different, as women.
“I’m a mom, a wife and a cop. And that’s what makes me who I am.”
Rookie Officer Kruse, with bright blue eyes and sandy hair pulled back into a bun, was impeccable in a navy police tie and head lid.Although her father, Officer Jon Anderson, retired from the LAPD, she had very little knowledge of the first woman L.A. cop, depicted in photographs with either a large Victorian hat or mandarin-style uniform.
Or she may have had vague knowledge of the hundreds of L.A. policewomen who worked for decades as second-class officers in uniform skirts, heels, stewardess-like hats and specially designed handbags to hide their guns.
In 1972, the Los Angeles Police Protective League held a Miss Fuzz beauty contest replete with hot pants, go-go boots and form-fitting tops for the contestants.
The infamous Miss Fuzz: Patrolwoman Gayleen Dunn of Van Nuys Division. Dunn, now Hays, the daughter of a burlesque star and granddaughter of a bordello madam, chronicled her policewoman experience in a book.
And Kruse may not have known about the 1973 sex discrimination lawsuit that led the LAPD to train women for “full-duty” policing. Over the years, the full pay and broader police training has offered more women officers experience – and a chance to move up in the ranks.
A former paramedic with a degree in biology from Cal State Northridge, the former track star from Simi Valley had seen victims of domestic violence, as well as rape, she said.
While at the police academy with her husband, she could shoot straighter, drive faster and recite criminal codes quicker than her classmates. During her first month on the job, she made four felony arrests and will soon try out for the LAPD running team.
While preparing to go on patrol with Officer Garrett Peyton, Kruse loaded her 12-gauge shotgun like a true-blue pro.
“I wanted to prevent those people from ever getting hurt in the first place,” said Kruse, sounding much like the original Wells, after passing a rigid inspection. “I always look forward to the day.
“I’m very proud to represent one of the most distinguished departments of the world, that has more female officers in it,” she said. “I’m going the distance.”
By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer/ L.A.D.N./