Highlights: Interview with Penny Harrington, America’s First Woman Police Chief

The Next Women Business Magazine recently published an interview with Penny Harrington, who became a police officer in 1964 in Portland and headed the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Center for Women & Policing at its founding in 1995. Harrington served in Portland in the Women’s Protective Division and began to challenge discriminatory policies after a few years in the force. She became Chief of Police in 1985 and was the first woman in America to lead a police department in a major city.

We’ve compiled some highlights of her interview below – but please read the full piece over at The Next Women, too!

On the history of the NCWP:

TNW: Tell us a bit about the National Center for Women & Policing. Why was it founded and what are its goals?

PH: The NCWP grew out of the riots in Los Angeles following the verdicts of the men who beat Rodney King. The Los Angeles Police Commission established a Women’s Advisory Council to examine the LAPD and make recommendations on how they could recruit and retain more women. I was appointed to be one of 4 women to lead the council. Kathy Spillar of the Feminist Majority also held one of those positions. When we finished our work and published “A Blueprint for Gender Equity in the Los Angeles Police Department,” Kathy asked me to come to work for the Feminist Majority and set up the NCWP. The goals of the NCWP were to increase the numbers of women in policing at all levels and improve the response of the police to crimes against women. The US Department of Justice published a book we wrote “Recruiting & Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement” which can be obtained from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

On what has – and hasn’t – changed:

TNW: What are the biggest obstacles facing women in law enforcement careers today?

PH: Unfortunately, the obstacles have not changed much since I started in 1964.

The single biggest obstacle is the culture that is unaccepting of women in law enforcement. There are still entry standards and training programs that wash out women in higher percentages than men.

The culture still values physical strength and use of force and devalues reasoning and negotiating skills. Also, because a great deal of men entering the law enforcement agencies come from the military, they bring those rigid attitudes with them. Now I do want to say here that there are many wonderful men in law enforcement who are supportive of women and who are excellent community officers.

On her heroes:

TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

PH: I have always admired Eleanor Smeal. I first heard of her when she was the President of NOW. Her words kept me fighting for equality all my life. And I cannot separate our Katherine Spillar, the Vice President of the Feminist Majority and the Publisher of Ms. Magazine. And, of course, who does not admire Hillary Clinton!

And lastly, some advice:

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

PH: The most important thing that i want to say to young women in all fields is this: Stand up and fight to be treated equally. Too many women cave in when the pressure gets tough. There are generations of women who have paved the way for you with their sweat and tears. You owe it to us to not give up the ground we gained so that you can have the career of your dreams.

Support eh ERA banner