Meet the Women Behind the Badge

MPD pledges to hire 30% female officers by 2030, up from 16% now. Advocates say more women cops could mean fewer excessive force complaints.  

Denita Ball remembers the silence.

Ball was a rookie Milwaukee police officer in the 1980s, one of the few women in the ranks and one of the first Black cops assigned to patrol the predominantly white South Side. Throughout her eight-hour shifts, her white male partner only spoke to her when they were responding to a call, “and we only got about three calls a day” in that low-crime area, she recalls.

Not all male officers were like that. But many of them “didn’t think a woman was cut out for the job,” Ball says.

Now Ball is on her way to becoming Milwaukee County’s first woman sheriff, and the first Wisconsin sheriff to be a woman of color, two decades after Nannette Hegerty became Milwaukee’s first woman police chief. Ball, outgoing Sheriff Earnell Lucas’ chief deputy, defeated two male colleagues in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary and is unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election.

However, women are still drastically underrepresented in law enforcement – just 13% of sworn officers nationwide, 14% in Wisconsin, and 16% each of Milwaukee officers and Milwaukee County deputies.


 

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The Milwaukee Police Department has vowed to turn that around by signing a pledge to increase its proportion of women to 30% of sworn officers by 2030, Assistant Chief Nicole Waldner tells Milwaukee Magazine.

Advocates of the national initiative, called 30×30, cite research that finds women officers relate better to their communities and are less likely to use excessive force than their male counterparts. As a result, the research shows, women are less likely to be named in lawsuits that lead to big cash payouts for victims of police mistreatment. 

That’s an attractive pitch in a city like Milwaukee, where Police Chief Jeffrey Norman is focusing on improving community relations scarred by decades of racial tensions and high-profile incidents of excessive force.

Waldner, the highest-ranking woman in MPD, recommended 30×30 to Norman. Like him, she believes the department would benefit from a work force that’s more diverse in every way, reflecting the city’s variety of races and cultures as well as genders.

Ball says she’s not familiar with 30×30. She says she supports increased diversity but believes law enforcement agencies should train all officers to use less force and get sued less often.

Still, Ball agrees with Waldner that women practice a different style of policing. An officer’s job has long been stereotyped as “running, fighting, wrestling people to the ground,” Waldner says. “The majority of police work is just talking to people at their worst moments.”

Women can do that better because they often have been socialized to listen more, “to be a little more patient, to hear people out,” Waldner says. “Men want to fix something, arrest someone,” although veteran male officers eventually adopt the same approach that women employ from the start, she says. 

Ball agrees, saying some male officers take an aggressive stance to show they’re in charge, while “we want to de-escalate the situation and make it a win-win for everyone.”

Female officers are often assigned to units handling sensitive crimes, human trafficking, juvenile offenders and community relations, all areas where their approach can improve perceptions of police, says Kimberly Hassell, associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Milwaukee.

But the barriers to adding more female officers remain steep.

Even though “women are just as skilled and just as competent as male police officers … women are still not accepted” by all their male colleagues in the “hyper-masculine culture” of law enforcement, Hassell says. Sexual harassment is a problem, as is raising children while working night and weekend shifts.

With all of those hurdles to overcome, Hassell says, “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to achieve the 30×30 goal.

But not impossible. The Madison Police Department already has 28% women officers. Madison and four neighboring agencies – the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and the Fitchburg, Middleton and UW-Madison police departments – were the first in Wisconsin to sign on to 30×30. A Madison police department spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Milwaukee has its own distinction. Among MPD commanders from lieutenant through assistant chief, 25% are women – including 31% of captains – compared with 8% of police commanders nationally. Similarly, 30% of Milwaukee County sheriff’s commanders in equivalent ranks are women, compared with 10% of sheriff’s commanders nationwide.

Neither Waldner nor Ball are sure why their agencies outperform their peers, with both stressing that they promote the best officers regardless of gender. But Waldner was optimistic that if the entire department can reach 30% women officers, maybe the command staff can reach 50%. “Once you get here,” Waldner says, “women succeed in law enforcement.”


Women in Law Enforcement

Among selected Wisconsin law enforcement agencies, the Madison Police Department exceeds national averages for women as sworn officers, while the State Patrol lags. The Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office are above national averages for women in ranks from lieutenant through second-in-command.

Agency

% women officers

Peer agencies

% women commanders

Peer agencies

Milwaukee Police Department

16%

16%1

25%

13%2

Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office

16%

14%3

30%

12%4

Wisconsin
State Patrol

8%

14%3

N/A

N/A

Waukesha County Sheriff’s Dept.

14%

13%5

14%

12%4

Madison Police Department

28%

16%6

N/A

N/A

Sources: Officers and commanders, respective agencies (Waukesha County: estimated; Madison: NPR); peer agency and State Patrol officers, 2019 FBI data; peer agency commanders, 2016 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data. 1 – All police in cities of 500,000-999,999 population; 2 – All police in cities of 250,000 or more ; 3 – All metropolitan county deputies and state troopers; 4 – all sheriff’s offices with 100-499 officers; 5 – All suburban law enforcement agencies; 6 – All police in cities of 250,000-499,999


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s November issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.