The Fort Smith Police Department has hit a milestone —10% of the officers are now female.
While FSPD falls slightly below the national average, the department is seeing an uptick in the number of female officers on the force in the past two years, said Aric Mitchell, FSPD public information officer.
Women accounted for 12% of full-time local police officers in 2013 (the latest data available) – up from 8% in 1987, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“Historically, Fort Smith sworn female officers (during the first 128 years of our 130-year history) has been about what the total number of currently active female officers are (15), and the first female FSPD officers didn’t start showing up until the 1970s,” Mitchell said.
Several of FSPD’s female officers recently sat down with Talk Business & Politics to discuss the challenges of their jobs along with the camaraderie, expectations and reactions. Overwhelming, those interviewed saw the growing number of female officers as positive for the community and the police force.
“It’s awesome. Look around. The numbers are growing,” said Officer Giselle Elmore, who served as a dispatcher for the department for seven years. She has been an officer for one. “It’s a huge deal to have females represented (as officers). We represent the community. But there’s no question it’s sometimes shocking for the community to see women officers.”
Female officers agreed they had a much more difficult time earning the respect of people they interact with on the job in the community than their fellow male officers.
“I worked patrol for 18 years because I was having a blast. But years ago, I had someone say, ‘They let you out here by yourself at night?’ They are going to challenge you when you are a female in a command role,” said Sgt. Kelley Colton recalling when she first started as an officer.
Colton started as an officer in 1995 and is now the accreditation office manager. Jan. 11, she became the first female officer promoted from in the department to sergeant in the past 15 years. Officer Lauren Hendricks, who joined the department two years ago, also deals with comments on her small stature.
“When you get out (on a call), people size you up. I have had them ask, ‘Do you have backup? You’re just really little.’ Our male counterparts don’t get those comments. But all of us can do the job. We have to be able to,” Hendricks said.
Others are happy to see a female officer answer a call, said Det. Charity Abbot, who joined the force in 2014 and works in crimes against children.
“There are times they really want to be able to talk to a female officer,” Abbot said. “We might not be as strong, some might not think females are as capable, but we have heart.”
Several of the officers noted they felt they had to do more in order to be as successful as their male counterparts but agreed that notion comes mostly from inside themselves rather than from fellow officers.
“Especially when I first started, I felt like I needed to work a little harder to get the same amount of respect. But I think that was might own projection. The male officers we work with have never been anything but respectful. They want us to succeed,” Colton said.
All the officers said the blue family discussed in regards to police officers is definitely true. They also agree, being a police officer can take a toll on their personal life.
“Just the way you do anything in your life changes,” said Areille James, who joined the force in August 2018.
“It’s hard sometimes to find a balance,” Elmore said.
Fortunately, fellow female officers on the force and throughout the state help keep that balance and focus, the offices agreed.
“We create a bond amongst ourselves,” Elmore said. “It’s a good thing, a network for female officers connected with one another. Even the women’s leadership in Little Rock and throughout the region are very supportive.”
Likewise, the officers said they encourage any young lady considering a career in law enforcement to just go for it.
“Just do it. We need more women on the force,” Elmore said.
FSPD plans to add 20 officer positions in 2019. The application process opened on Jan. 22, and it will end Feb. 27. There are two officers going through police academy training now, one of whom is female, Dawn Dodson, Mitchell said.
“A police department should be a mirror for the community which it serves. Having a department that reflects the people of its city is essential if you expect to enhance service delivery to every citizen. That’s what we want to achieve. But our focus is ensuring that we hire the best, most qualified candidates for each position,” FSPD Chief Nathaniel Clark.