Assistant Police Chief Kris Mienert was the second woman hired by the Woodbury Police Department in 1989. Before she retires, Mienert would like to see half the department staffed by women.
"As I’ve been moving up the ranks, we’ve always talked about being reflective of our community — well, our community is probably 50% women, correct? So why isn’t our police force?" Mienert said. "And the first time I said that out loud in a staff meeting everyone’s kinda looking at me like I’m crazy, but then the more that we talk about it, they’re like, well, that does make sense.”
Fifteen of Woodbury's 71 law enforcement positions are currently filled by women, a rate of 21%. Though Mienert knows it's unlikely the department will reach the 50% goal before her retirement, she's hopeful the other women Woodbury Public Safety employs will carry on the charge.
“I’m very proud of where we’re at percentage-wise of how many females we have, but we still need to do better," Mienert said.
In 2019, just 12% of full- and part-time peace officer positions statewide were held by women. In Cottage Grove the rate is 7% and about 4% in Hastings, with just one of 28 law enforcement positions in the city held by a woman.
About 12% of local officers nationwide are female, according to 2016 numbers from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Though the number of women in some departments, such as Woodbury's, is slowly creeping up, the total number of new peace officer licenses issued to women in Minnesota has stayed relatively steady since at least 1999. The number hit 101 in 2018, nearly the highest in 10 years, but still just 17% of total licenses issued that year.
It’s notable that some east metro cities have women in leadership positions when it comes to law enforcement: aside from Mienert, Cottage Grove has deputy director of public safety and Police Capt. Gwen Martin, and St. Paul Park has Police Chief Jessica Danberg. Nationwide, however, just 10% of supervisors or managers and 3% of police chiefs are women.
Why do we need female police officers?
For some, seeing a woman in police uniform can be disarming. In a crisis situation, this can be helpful, officers said.
“Seeing a female in a male-dominated field interrupts what people have as an expectation, and they stop and maybe listen a little bit more and ask the questions a little bit more," said Woodbury Operations Sgt. Alanna Kopel, who has been with the department since 1999. "They see something that doesn’t fit the mold, which gives us an opportunity to communicate and connect and make change, I think.”
One advantage of being a woman in law enforcement is it being more socially acceptable to be nurturing or show an emotional side, Woodbury detective Kim Richardson said.
Before she began her current job, Hastings patrol officer Whitney Rinowski worked as a caretaker for a nonverbal young adult with Down syndrome. The patience and communication skills she developed in her caretaking role have informed the way she approaches policing, Rinowski said, especially when communicating with people in crisis.
Woodbury officer Karla Hernandez said one possible advantage is that many people may feel more at ease talking to a woman, especially in cases of male-on-female violence, where a woman may have just had a traumatic experience with a man and may not feel as comfortable talking with a male officer.
However, Hernandez and others emphasized this can sometimes just be a perception by the public, and that male officers may be just as nurturing or compassionate as female officers.
But differences remain: a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center showed just 11% of female officers have ever fired their weapon on duty, versus 30% of male officers.
"Overall, I feel like we’re all very well trained," Hernandez said. "But I think communication and de-escalation, maybe it’s more automatic or more natural for people to just be more respectful, or… Like I said, just be more at ease with a woman."
Mienert told a story about Sherry Koch, Woodbury's first female police officer hired in 1986, as she worked a homicide case many years ago.
“There was a piece of evidence left behind and none of the male counterparts knew what this was, and Sherry Koch, she was like, well, that’s the plastic back of an earring," Mienert said.
Minneapolis Police Cmdr. Kim Lund said one of the biggest barriers to entry for women can be passing physical tests traditionally designed for men, but that it's a mistake to see women as weaker: women excel in leg strength, which can be vital in a ground fight, she said. However, Lund also emphasized a need to push young women, especially those who may be interested in law enforcement, to develop strong cores and upper bodies alongside their male counterparts.
When it comes down to it, Cottage Grove's Martin said, it's about male and female officers working as a team to reach the best possible outcome on the job.
"That's why we work together, in pairs, in teams," Martin said. "Everyone's got their assets, their abilities."
An exposure problem
Woodbury Police Cmdr. and spokesperson John Altman said the city doesn't specifically recruit women. Instead, Altman and other Woodbury officers credited Mienert's longevity and example for the department's ability to attract and retain female officers.
"That story surpasses these walls and resonates with other women in other agencies, and I think oftentimes that story all on itself is a reason why we get people that come from other agencies," Kopel said. "That might, in my mind, lead to other women from other agencies that perhaps don’t have that same … supportive environment (coming) here for that.”
Many of the police officers RiverTown Multimedia spoke to brought up exposure as a possible solution for the gender discrepancy. In other words, girls and young women seeing and interacting with female police officers could let them consider a law enforcement career they may not have previously.
Woodbury’s Hernandez said she noticed the high number of women in the city's department when she was working as a reserve officer in South St. Paul, and going to community events and interacting with K-9 officer Natalie Bauer and other female officers.
Still, officers recognize that policing is still widely considered a male occupation.
“Even now, I’ll go into a gas station … and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a female officer.’ You know, it’s just shocking to me," Hernandez said.
Martin said that when she was hired in 2000, the Cottage Grove Police Department had the highest rate of female police officers in the state. She attributes the decline at least partially to a gradual transition from the cross-training of paramedics as police officers and instead train them as firefighters.
Woodbury has taken similar steps in recent years but doesn’t attribute the shift to any issues with recruitment or retention, Altman said. Hastings does not cross-train its police officers.
Many of the officers also described a drop in the number of applicants overall. Statewide data from the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training shows a consistent increase in exams taken between 2009-2015, but then a steady decrease from 2015-2018, with a slight increase again in 2019.
"I think one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement today is recruitment, finding women who are interested in the profession — finding anybody who's interested in the profession, but specifically women who are looking for a career in that," Martin said.
Lund suggested the gender discrepancy starts with how parents may treat their girls differently than boys as they grow up.
Lund is also on the board of the Minnesota Association of Women Police, formed in 1955 to encourage professionalism of women in law enforcement and serve as a support system and knowledge network among female officers.
"It’s the way we raise our girls," she said. "I think we do a disservice to raise our children differently between (genders)."
All of the officers had the same thing to say to girls and young women who may be considering a career in law enforcement: get involved, and find ways to expose yourself to the job. Many departments, including Cottage Grove, Hastings and Woodbury, have police explorer programs that introduce high school students and young adults to law enforcement. They also encouraged going on a ride along to get a feel for what the job is actually like, or entering the field as a reserve or community service officer.
“One of my goals is always just to let it be known to residents or younger residents here … just let little girls know, hey, this is a great job, it’s a great career, and I just feel like the exposure isn’t there," Hernandez said.
How pregnancy complicates things
When Lund got her first law enforcement job 36 years ago, her male coworkers told her she would be fired if she got pregnant.
Nearly four decades later, Lund said one of the biggest challenges women in law enforcement face statewide is how individual departments handle pregnancy.
“I think perhaps women feel that they need to make a choice between perhaps a career like law enforcement and being a mom … that you can’t be both, but you can be both," Kopel said.
Ashley Kowarsch, a school resource officer at East Ridge High School, made the point that policing may not be the ideal career for a family — overnight shifts, patrol work that can make child care difficult — but that it's possible with a good support system.
Still, Kowarsch and others have a message for women: "There’s a way to balance this job and the expectations within your life, and there is a place for you here.
"Our male partners would never be like, 'I wish it was all guys,' because there’s so many things we can collaborate together on," Kowarsch said.