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Female officers make up just 12.5% of total commissioned officers at the Peoria Police Department

Detective Christina Chavez (left) with Sergeant Amy Dotson of the Peoria Police Department
Jody Holtz
Detective Christina Chavez, left, with Sgt. Amy Dotson of the Peoria Police Department.

Across the country, the staffing divide between men and women in law enforcement has consistently been large, with women historically making up a distinct minority of people in the field. In fact, women make up only 13% of full-time police officers across the United States.

At the Peoria Police Department, the situation is similar. Of the 213 commissioned officers the department had in 2017, only 23 were women. Fast forward five years, and the department has only seen two more female officers join the force, bringing the current total number of female officers at the department to 25.

Detective Christina Chavez was the only female in her class when she was going through the police academy, though she said that fact wasn’t the aspect that was intimidating to her.

“It was more because this was an entirely new realm for me…I kind of knew that being smaller, that I was going to have to kind of prove myself when it came to the street, but it wasn’t even just for the male officers, but it was for myself, too, knowing I could hold my own…but I feel like the male officers go through the same when they first start, too,” Chavez explained.

Sgt. Amy Dotson, who has been with the department for 17 years, has a similar view.

“I never felt different from the males…I never felt a gender difference. I felt like we were all in the same boat together…you’re all trying to live up to the expectations and be worthy of the badge,” Dotson said.

Both Chavez and Dotson attribute this sense of welcoming and belonging to the supportive nature of the other officers working at the Peoria Police Department. Chavez herself has had some run-ins with people in the community who didn’t respect her on the job simply because she is a woman. In those cases, she said someone always had her back.

“Being on a call where it’s me and a male officer and If I’m getting any flack, he’s right there to stand up for me and tell them to…calm it down because I can do just the same things he can,” Chavez said.

While having a tight knit group of colleagues is helpful in any workplace, women are still entering law enforcement in drastically lower numbers than men. Women account for only 10% of the police force in state agencies across Illinois. At the Peoria Police Department, just 12.5% of the officers are female.

Why so few female officers?

So what is preventing women from entering law enforcement? Dotson thinks misconceptions about the job can play a big role.

“Sometimes, people think, and I’ll say sometimes women but it goes for men, too, ‘I can’t do that job because X, Y, Z or…I don't know what I would do in that situation’…and we teach you,” Dotson said.

Chavez believes another reason is the stigma surrounding the job.

“I think there’s just still kind of a stigma attached to it that females aren’t equal to men in law enforcement, but I wish that was something we could just snap our fingers and get rid of because I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of us who know that we can do the same job as the male officers do,” she said.

There’s also a lot of societal pressure placed on women to do it all, such as having a marriage, children, a thriving professional career, and a great social life — all while maintaining a happy, healthy household.

“Women have that mentality, ‘I can do it all, I have to do it all’, but sometimes I think that loses translation into police work because they think, ‘Well, I’m a mom, there's no way I can do that.’ But there is, there absolutely is,” Dotson said.

Both Chavez and Dotson are mothers themselves, and while they said being pulled away from family time in emergencies is unfortunate, there are ways to work around it for mothers who want a career in law enforcement.

“Trying to make people understand you can do this job, you may miss out on certain things. I do currently working at night, but we just adjust how we do things at my house. We don’t have as much time together, but we make our time count, and I almost think it’s more valuable…whether you’re a single father, single mother, or you’re a couple together and you have kids, you can do this. It can be done, and I wish that could be embraced and we could see hundreds of applicants,” Dotson explained.

However, the Peoria Police Department currently is not seeing hundreds of applicants, male or female, according to Chavez. In fact, that number has been dwindling since 2017. Today, the department has 199 commissioned officers, compared with 213 officers in 2017.

Making a difference

This greater lack of interest in policing is driven by other potential factors, one being the culture that surrounds it.

For example, Dotson said when she first began the job 17 years ago, making arrests and writing tickets was the cool thing to do in order to meet certain quotas and prove yourself to other officers. However, Dotson said she has grown up quite a bit on the job since then, and a comment made to her by a senior officer years ago altered her thinking, and has resonated with her more than a decade later.

“I remember him…putting his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘Kid, I’m glad you love the job, but someday I hope you realize that arresting is the last option. There are people who need to be arrested for certain things, certain violent offenses, but that’s just one tool on your belt, and I hope someday you realize that,’” noted Dotson.

While trying to de-escalate situations and provide alternative solutions other than arrests when conflict arises isn’t exactly a new philosophy within policing, it was one that was underutilized and perhaps under-taught. Not every officer is fortunate enough to come in contact with strong mentors that teach them the ropes and how to build bridges within the communities they serve.

However, at the Peoria Police Department, up-and-coming officers are younger than ever, and are ready to make a difference — male or female, according to Dotson.

“I think there’s a lot of different schools of thought now, and as the younger generations get hired, they're innovators. They don’t just do things because that’s the way we’ve always done them, so the younger officers have things to teach the older officers as well,” she said.

Detective Chavez agreed.

“They have the drive and the energy and the zest to get guns off the street, to get dope off the street and things like that…so they’re out looking for stolen cars and things like that,” she says.

And, while there’s still a long road ahead to achieve equal representation between men and women in law enforcement, this younger generation and their willingness to try new approaches is proving to be a promising part of the journey.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.