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Peter Funt: As in Santa Barbara, Women Rising as Top Cops Around the Nation

I was at a Phoenix Suns basketball game in October when the public address announcer asked for a round of applause for the city’s new police chief. Thousands of us scanned the arena, wondering where he might be seated.

It was reminiscent of the old riddle about a man and his son in a car crash. The man dies. The boy needs surgery, yet the doctor declares, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.”

How could that be? Answer: the doctor was a woman.

So, at the Suns game, the first female police chief in Phoenix’s history, Jeri Williams, stood up and waved. The former Oxnard police chief was seated with her husband, local Justice of the Peace Cody Williams, and rooting for their son, former UC Santa Barbara Gaucho Alan Williams, who plays for the Suns.

As 2017 began, Anne Kirkpatrick, a 34-year police veteran, became the first female Oakland police chief after serving as chief in Spokane, Wash.

A few days earlier, Chula Vista, a city of more than a quarter-million people near San Diego, swore in Roxana Kennedy as its first female police chief.

San Diego has had a female chief, Shelley Zimmerman, since 2014.

And a former San Diego police officer, Lori Luhnow, has been chief of the Santa Barbara Police Department since July 2016.

On New Year’s Eve, Valerie Cunningham was named acting Indianapolis police chief — becoming the first woman to ever run that department.

It’s estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s police chiefs are women, which is low but rapidly changing. And the selection of more women to run what are still largely male-dominated police forces raises questions about whether there are meaningful differences in what women bring to these posts.

Kirkpatrick got the job as chief in Oakland due primarily to her reputation for being tough on cop crime. She had been working for the Chicago Police Department trying to clean up a department wracked by scandal.

In Oakland, she takes over a police force that has been under federal court supervision since the 2003 settlement of a civil-rights case that accused officers of planting evidence, beating suspects and other offenses.

There’s an oft-stated belief among those hiring women as top cops that the female perspective could ease many of the problems plaguing the nation’s police. The National Center for Women and Policing says on its website: “Twenty years of exhaustive research demonstrates that women police officers utilize a style of policing that relies less on physical force, and more on communication skills that defuse potentially violent situations.”

The group adds that women are involved in relatively fewer cases of police brutality and are more effective than men in handling violence against women — the single largest category of calls to police agencies nationwide.

Several studies show that female cops are less likely to discharge their weapons when responding to violent crimes. Indeed, there are only two known cases in which a female officer faced murder charges in connection with shooting while on duty.

Such analysis, however, forms a slippery slope for those who seek equal opportunity for women but who don’t necessarily acknowledge workplace differences — good or bad — between the sexes. It’s difficult to claim that women are inherently better at some tasks while insisting that the same isn’t true for men.

The less contentious notion is that virtually all businesses and civil services operate better with a healthy mix of men and women. The very presence of one sex helps moderate and refine the behavior of the other.

It’s a good sign that more police departments are promoting women to the top, where it need not be proved that they are somehow better, only that they are as qualified as anyone else. The best law enforcement agencies are those whose staff composition mirrors the communities they serve.

Footnote: Writing in my office in the small town of Pacific Grove, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the name of our current police chief. To my surprise she’s Amy Christey, formerly chief of the Morro Bay Police Department and an Army veteran who took over in September, beating out 49 other candidates, most of whom were men.

Peter Funt is a writer, speaker and author of the book, Cautiously Optimistic. He is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons and can be contacted at www.candidcamera.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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