SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — As the country debates police reform and the best policing practices, research suggests women could be part of the answer.
WREG Investigators sat down with 13 women who have been in law enforcement from two years to nearly three decades. They currently work for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in corrections, sex crimes, patrol, the courts division, and more.
“I always wanted to be in law enforcement,” Jail Captain Jennie Rudd said. “I had several interviews. I didn’t make it but the third time.”
Most agreed with her it was a challenge breaking into the male-dominated industry, but determination is what brought them here.
Two seats over from Rudd was Chief Inspector Dallas Lavergne.
“What brought me here is at 15, a stranger tried to kidnap me,” she said.
Lavergne said she was upset about how her case was handled.
“It was men investigators. I was very upset. The whole time I was like a victim shouldn’t be treated this way and basically, I can do it better,” she said.
She’s now been in law enforcement for 26 years. She makes up the small percentage of women on the force and across the country.
Despite most agencies saying they want to hire more women and have long tried, research shows women are under-represented. Nationwide, they only hold about 12 percent of sworn law enforcement positions. There are fewer in state policing and barely any in leadership roles
WREG asked the women why they think that is.
“The perception you have to be strong, you have to be tough and you have to have this physical ability,” said Lt. Fatondra Gardner.
“We have a lot of children and young ladies who don’t really care for the police. They’re afraid of the stories they’ve heard and what they’ve seen on the street,” Sgt. Nichole Brumley added.
On top of the stereotypes, women have reported widespread challenges over the years. A special report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that women in the field, especially women of color, have dealt with harassment, sexism, and discrimination.
“Coming from the perspective of a man, sometimes they look at us like we are not able to do the job as well as they do the job. Speaking for all of us as women, we do a perfect job at it,” Deputy Margarett Lewis said.
But the women said there’s been progress made like more female-friendly policies. They said their hard work has led to more acceptance by their male colleagues
“It’s getting better. It doesn’t doesn’t seem to be as many men saying they can’t do it no matter what,” Lavergne said.
Especially when studies show departments with more women see better outcomes for crime victims, particularly in sexual assault cases. Other studies indicate women use less excessive force, they are less likely to be the subject of citizen complaints, they are more skilled at assessing policing needs of diverse communities, and they have a more calming effect.
“Children, kids, young adults, older adults, they gravitate to the nurturing and mothering part we bring to the table. The compassion and empathy we show, everyone is searching for that,” Gardner said.
Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis, the department’s first black female chief, recently signed a pledge to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30 percent by 2030. She also vowed to make sure MPD’s policies and culture support women.
Currently, MPD women make up close to 18 percent of its force
More than 150 other agencies made the same commitment.
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said he hasn’t had the pledge presented to him, but female deputies “now and will continue to be an integral part” of his workforce. Currently, SCSO reports women make up 13.1% of law enforcement and 58% of corrections.
“Even with the small percentage we have now, we are definitely making a difference. I believe that it is going to be the 30 and reach beyond that,” Lt. Francies Toles said.
Studies show a diverse workforce that reflects the cultural, racial, and diversity of a community is more effective, creative, and resilient.
“Men bring a lot as well, but I think the more perspectives and resources we have, the better to help the community,” Sgt. Stacey lee said.
These women believe that’s what they’re bringing to the table and hope they’re inspiring young girls.. that they can do it too.
“We have arrived and accept us,” Jail Admin Takietha Tuggle said. “We are just here to make our community a better place.”