Women in blue
Palo Alto Police Department's female officers serve with wit, wisdom and determination
On her third day as a Palo Alto police officer, Agent Marianna Villaescusa got a wake-up call: A man tried to run her down with his car during a traffic stop. She hopped up on her cruiser to avoid being struck, she said.
Every day Palo Alto's 14 female officers put their lives on the line along with the rest of the city's police force. Over the past three decades, women in blue have made great strides in their profession. Despite sometimes-prejudicial treatment from the public, lingering biases in specialized teams and still-small numbers, women on the Palo Alto police force do everything their male counterparts do, they said.
And they love their work, whether they're removing a child from an abusive home or wrestling a bank robber to the ground. Being a police officer is the greatest career choice they could have made, several female officers have said.
They attribute that rosy perspective to a department that has spent more than three decades developing a culture that views women as equals and offers them on-par opportunities, the officers said.
Palo Alto's police department has one of the highest percentage of female officers in the state. Fourteen officers — 15.5 percent of the force — are female, compared to an average for most departments in California of 6 to 10 percent, retired Lt. Sandra Brown said. At one point, nearly 25 percent of the force was comprised of women.
Palo Alto started integrating its force in the 1970s and 80s under former Chief Jim Zurcher, with a goal of achieving 50 percent minorities and women.
"He did a lot to shift the culture. The number of women in Palo Alto is rare," said Menlo Park police Commander Lacey Burt, a former Palo Alto officer who joined that department in 1983.
Zurcher's plan was "visionary," current Chief Dennis Burns said.
"For 30 years women have always been part of the organization's fabric. I look at them as absolute equals in every regard. They contribute completely. They might bring a different perspective to a situation. We would be a different organization without women. They enrich it," he said.
Women in the department said their longtime presence has removed attitudes that caused early female colleagues much grief.
"Most men are accustomed to being outranked by women," Brown said. "Any fight was fought by women before me."
Male colleagues don't see women on the force as "girls" or "women cops," Brown said. In uniform, they are just officers.
Other women in the department noted Palo Alto has many women of high rank, from agents to sergeants to lieutenants, and many have gone on to other police departments to become captains and commanders. Former Palo Alto Chief Lynne Johnson was one of the first women to work in Palo Alto's force, they noted. (Johnson retired in December 2008 following a controversial statement in which she said she had instructed officers to make "consensual contact" with black men who matched the description of a purse-snatcher. Her comment was interpreted as condoning illegal racial profiling.)
But the officers also acknowledged that a few challenges remain for female officers. In some police agencies and specialized teams, women still have a difficult time getting into the old-boy club, they said.
Lt. April Wagner, a former hospital charge nurse and a Palo Alto officer for 13 years, said only one woman, former officer Corey Preheim, has served on the SWAT team. Currently no women are on the team, she said.
Sgt. Kara Apple said there's a higher expectation of women that comes out of an assumption that women can't physically do the same things as men, which implies that women have to prove themselves to get onto specialized teams.
"But not all men are beefy, brawny guys," she said.
Brown agreed there are biases.
"They don't see women in tactical positions because they've never seen it," Brown said. "Women also don't see ourselves in that position. We don't have the upper body strength of a man. Some tests preclude you from passing the test."
Wearing a 75-pound pack is going to be different for a man who weighs 220 pounds and a woman who weighs 140, she said. If those measurements were adjusted to a percentage of body weight, the playing field for testing would be more level, she said.
Burt said achieving high rank also does not mean the road gets any easier.
"Women have to prove themselves all over again," Burt said. "I used to think when I got a rank commission, I would get respect, but it really didn't work out like that. You continually have to prove that you are operationally sound. I think you have to be very credible, very unemotional with male subordinates who interact with you. Otherwise, you come off as an 'emotional female,'" she said.
Burt said police agencies have come a long way, and they still have a way to go.
"Now departments train against sexual harassment. But ... women are still in minority numbers in this profession," she said. She estimated that in 2012 women hold 5 percent of law enforcement positions in the U.S.
But current hurdles pale by comparison to the more overt acts of prejudice women in law enforcement once faced in Palo Alto and elsewhere, according to the officers.
Burt said when she came on board in 1983, male officers would not cover her when she called for backup. And someone created "PMS kits" for male officers who had female partners and put them in the men's mailboxes. When Brown first joined Palo Alto in 1988, a former male colleague patted her bottom, she said.
But Villaescusa, an officer for 10 years, said the most uncomfortable thing she has dealt with was when her male partner opened the door for her. She didn't want people to think there was a need to be treated differently, she said.
"I'm glad to say that we have evolved as a profession and as a department since the 1980s. Today our employees are judged on their character, ability and productivity, not their gender. We have some very clear policies that forbid such behavior, and violating these policies can have career-ending consequences," he said.
Ironically, the pressure women officers feel today comes from holding themselves to higher standards, she said.
"We always think we have to prove ourselves. That's one thing about Palo Alto. Our males don't expect us to prove ourselves," she said.
When women strap on their weighty guns and belts, don their bulletproof vests and roll out in their squad cars, they do the same job any officer does and they face the same dangers, Villaescusa said.
"This is one of the few jobs where we have a death list. We have to name who gets notified if you die and (who) carries your casket. You fill out your funeral arrangements," she said.
Villaescusa said she has been in the hospital five times from five different incidents. She sustained a concussion after a Ford F150 broadsided her squad car.
"This is one profession where I'm not going to wear my joke underpants," she said, smiling wryly.
Early in her career, while answering a call for help, she was confronted by a large woman who immediately tried to grab her gun.
"She said, 'I'm going to take your gun and kill you,'" Villaescusa recalled.
That's the moment "when all of your training kicks in. I was down there fighting for my life," she said.
Brown said officers are trained to never give up in a fight. If she could just hang on for three minutes, backup would arrive, she said. While strength and size can be an asset, the range of new technologies has helped make the job less dangerous for all police than it was in the era of the 1950s-1970s, she said. Officers today have communications systems that help organize backup quickly. Weapons such as stun guns and pepper spray help the police subdue unruly suspects, avoiding the need for hand-to-hand combat.
If anyone thinks female cops are pushovers because of their smaller size or gender, Brown and others said they should think again.
"I've been on my back with a guy on top of me fighting. Never did I say I would give up. You know it's going to hurt, but you just jump in," she said.
But as much as they don't hesitate to battle if necessary, women also have a gift for talking that Chief Burns calls an asset.
Brown recalled encountering an enraged man at Cubberley Community Center who wasn't backing down.
"He was spitting anger," she said.
She called for backup, but for several minutes she would have to tangle alone with the 6-foot-4-inch man, she said. And a lot can happen in that time.
So she took a different approach — saying something no male colleague would, she recalled.
"Two things are going to happen today," she said she told the man. "You are going to jail today, I will guarantee that. And I'm going to go home and make love to my husband. I don't know in what order that is going to happen, but I do know those two things are going to happen today," she said.
The man looked stunned. "What did you say?" he asked. So she repeated the statement.
"That's cool. I'm not going to keep a man from that," he said, according to Brown.
By the time a male officer came on the scene, bristling and hollering for the man to get down on the ground, Brown had the situation under control.
"We talked all the way to the jail," she said.
Brown's approach — to use humor, compassion or verbal shock and awe to diffuse a critical situation — is emblematic of the different approach female police officers take, they said.
Many male officers come out of the military and bring their skills and approach from that experience, Brown said. Little boys are trained early on in tactics and combat through toy soldiers and G.I. Joe, but not so little girls.
"I have to start setting up, to get a mindset. It's a little extra step because it doesn't come naturally," she said.
Women's ability as peacemakers can help resolve situations before they get violent, Apple said. That quality helps forward the aim of every police officer: to help their communities and make a valuable contribution.
Villaescusa has made herself well-known in south Palo Alto, in neighborhoods where Latino families live. Residents became accustomed to her driving down the street outside the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, rousing schoolchildren in the morning by yelling, "Hey — it's time to get up," she said.
She has left gift cards and socks and other items anonymously on the doorsteps of families she was trying to help. She was recently invited to the wedding of two people she had arrested, she said.
Ironically, the most prejudice Palo Alto's officers face today comes from the public, they said.
"Palo Alto was the first place I ever felt discriminated against," Villaescusa said. "I've never felt so much prejudice. There would be calls (to dispatch) where people didn't want a female to respond. One time they called and said, 'I don't want this Mexican coming to my house,'" she said.
Brown, who prior to her law-enforcement career was a marketer in the high-tech field, also encountered racism more frequently than sexism, although that hasn't happened in the last 10 years, she said. She has been called a second-class citizen and the "N" word. And once while she stood in full uniform on the corner of Bryant Street and University Avenue, a woman told her the only reason she was on the force was because of affirmative action, she said.
Peace officers have to take the harsh words and can't react with force just because someone tries to incite their anger, she said.
"You have to hold your bar up here," she said gesturing above her head.
But Brown, who retired from the Palo Alto department in December, said it's gratifying that most residents just have faith in their ability to do the job, regardless of gender. She and another female officer once went to investigate a person lurking in a resident's yard. The resident, a man who was 6-foot-5, answered the door.
"He was asking us, two women, 'Is it OK to come out?' " Brown said, smiling.
Brown said she loved her 24 years in Palo Alto: "It's the best decision I ever made. It's the best career for women. It opens doors and opportunities for you."
When Brown gives motivational speeches to schoolgirls, she focuses on raising their awareness of how exciting the career can be.
Brown said she suspects the drop in Palo Alto's number of female officers is due to retirements, injuries or opportunities in other police departments. Brown thinks the drop in recruits has more to do with a negative image of police, which has been increasing in the media in the last six or seven years, she said. And although there are some bad apples, she doesn't believe it reflects all law enforcement.
"We were never the heroes," she said.
Drifting back to an all-white, all-male force isn't likely.
"That doesn't project what society is about and what the public expects. ... In the near future, in the next few years, we need to figure out how to recruit (not only) women but minorities as well," she said.
Burns said there are 15 positions to be filled in his department, and women and minorities are welcome.
In 2005 Burt and another former Palo Alto police officer, Alana Forrest (now a captain in Los Gatos), started the Women Leaders in Law Enforcement conference. The two met over coffee and realized they had been in law enforcement for 20 years, but there was still "not a lot of support. There was no place where women could feel empowered and inspired," Burt said.
Out of their own money they put on a four-hour workshop at Zibibbo restaurant in downtown Palo Alto and planned for 125 spots. Within a week, the workshop was full and they had a waiting list, she said.
"People crashed the workshop. We thought, 'Holy cow. There really is a need for this,'" she said.
In 2011, the conference attracted 1,100 people at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, including men, she said. It received support from the California Chiefs of Police Association, California Highway Patrol, California Sheriffs' Association and others.
Wagner said the conference gives women quality training and opportunities to network and meet women of rank.
The officers can also commiserate over the little things that still need changing: pants that zip up the opposite side and body armor that is not designed for breasts or the logistics of going to the restroom while wearing a belt of dangling guns, batons, flashlights and other equipment.
Burt said some law-enforcement-equipment magazines are reaching out to offer merchandise for women.
"But more times than not the models are wearing pink shirts or have pink handcuffs," she said.
"Really? Really?" she laughed. "Is that what you think we want?"
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.