In 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was killed on a sidewalk in Staten Island, N.Y., when a male police officer put him in a chokehold during a misdemeanor arrest.
Filmmaker Deirdre Fishel, who was working just a few blocks away, remembers asking a female police officer if what had happened to Garner could have happened on her watch. The officer said no — that a female officer would have been more likely to deescalate the situation.
“And I just started to think: Do women police differently?” Fishel says. “I really wanted to explore this question of what could women potentially bring to police departments.”
Fishel’s new PBS documentary Women in Blue, on the Independent Lens series, focuses on four women who worked for the Minneapolis Police Department. Alice White, one of the women profiled, joined the department in 2004. In 2018, she became one of only six Black women on the force to hold the rank of sergeant. White agrees that women tend to police differently than men.
“I’m not saying that all men police aggressively or in a manner that is unprofessional and bad,” White says. “But I am going to say women typically aren’t policing in a manner that causes them to use … their physical muscle. They’re policing in a manner that they use their brain muscle, because a lot of the time we’re encountering someone who could outweigh us [or] outfight us.”
Three years after Fishel started filming the documentary, George Floyd died at the hands of police, putting the Minneapolis Police Department at the center of protests around the world. She says that Floyd’s murder made her realize just how profoundly policing needs to change.
“I still actually really believe that women could make a difference, but not without some other major systemic changes,” Fishel says. “I think there is systemic racism and I think there’s also systemic sexism. And I think we need to think about, what do we want police officers to do? And who are the people that can actually do that?”
On how Sgt. White reacted after watching the video of George Floyd’s death
White: I cried uncontrollably, and I’ve never done that at work in 17 years, and I thought I was being discreet, but one of my coworkers who [was] in the next office over, he came over and he said, “Are you watching the video?” And I couldn’t even get a word out. I just nodded my head. And as you would think, officers aren’t typically touchy feely, huggy type people, and he just came over and hugged me and rubbed my back while I cried uncontrollably watching the video.
There was no excuse to be made. It was there in plain sight. There was no way to avoid it. The overwhelming amount of sadness that filled me is indescribable. I’ve never felt like that. There’ve been situations that I haven’t agreed with or I haven’t been comfortable with, but just that blatant in my face situation, it was hard. It was one of the hardest things actually I’ve dealt with being in law enforcement and immediately, I felt like, why am I doing this, how can I be a part of this? … Why am I working for this department? I felt like a traitor. I felt like I was betraying my people because I am a part of this agency. That’s how I felt that day.
On why White decided to stay in the job
White: I stayed because I have a super strong familial support system and my family supported me. And after talking to my family and them reassuring me that I’m here in this department for a reason and all the reasons that I became a police officer are still valid, and no matter what, they stand behind me and that incident doesn’t represent me. And if I leave, who’s going to replace me on the goals that I’ve set forth for my whole foundation of being a police officer? And then I talked to the community and they embraced me so tight. There was so much love.
On training officers in “procedural justice”
Fishel: So the foundation of procedural justice is voice, neutrality, respect, trustworthiness. So, voice: Teaching officers that even though this call is repetitious and you’ve been to 10 domestic violence calls tonight, take a minute and let this person talk to you and explain their situation to you. Give them a voice. Respond neutrally: So even though you’ve been to 10 domestic calls tonight being neutral in your decision making based on this incident that you’re on right now. Respect: You might not respect this violent person who you’re encountering right now, but I always said treat everyone professionally and it’s going to appear as if you are respecting that person. It’s hard in law enforcement to show respect for someone who you know is a violent person who just beat up their wife and, you know, attempted to kill her, but you can be professional.
On the importance of treating everyone humanely
White: I’ve arrested people in my life when I get down to jail, they’re thanking me, and they are not thanking me because I put them in handcuffs and took them to jail. They were thanking me because I treated them humanely. And as a human, I think we all know what that means. If you have to use force on someone, you use the amount of force that’s necessary for the situation and then you stop. You don’t have to talk to someone disrespectfully. Sometimes their [humanity] is the last thing that this person has, and if you take that from them, you’re backing them into a corner and you’re not giving them an opportunity to comply with what you need them to comply with. … So you’re not taking it personally. You’re not responding emotionally. Anger and aggressiveness, in my opinion, comes from emotion, and there’s no need to treat someone in that manner when you’re just doing a job.
On why it’s difficult to recruit women police officers
Fishel: The entry requirements … [are] still very discriminatory towards women. So they really emphasize upper body strength or speed. I was going to follow a woman, a young Black woman from North Minneapolis and at the beginning of filming, and she couldn’t pass this mile and a half [test]. She could run a mile and a half, but she couldn’t do it fast enough. And she wound up not getting on the police force. So here was a police force that desperately needed more Black women, and she was from the community and her father was a police officer in the MPD and couldn’t run this test. … What do we want police officers to do? Are we focusing on testing communication skills? On empathy? …
If we really want women — and the number [of female officers] has not moved in 30 years, it’s 12% — I think we have to think about what are the requirements? And then once you get in there, how do you protect women? How do you make sure that they feel comfortable?
White: I’ve been a part of a couple recruitment initiatives, and I was on the recruitment team since day one with the Minneapolis police department and I agree with Deirdre, there should be more women on the police department. It’s been a challenge to get women, especially Black women, interested in law enforcement, or any minority woman. A lot of the time, it’s not the fear of being able to make the cut on the testing or the requirements to become a law enforcement officer, it’s the lack of support from their family and their friends and their community, because this career is is very highly stigmatized. .. Women tend to hold families together, and a lot of families have a problem with women moving into law enforcement. It’s always been a challenge to get women interested in law enforcement.
Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.