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More women in the police won’t reduce police violence

OPINION: Focusing on the gender of officers is misleading – violence and intimidation are integral to policing

Janey Starling
28 March 2023, 4.04pm

There is a misguided assumption that having more women officers could reduce police violence


Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As reports of hideous violence by serving Metropolitan Police officers such as David Carrick unravel the legitimacy of British policing as a whole, policymakers and the public are grasping for solutions. The most misguided among them is the suggestion that the presence of more women officers could reduce violence in the police.

This idea is underpinned by two assumptions. First, that violence within policing is the fault of individual male officers, as opposed to the very design of policing itself. Second, that women, who in the general population are statistically less violent, will not use violence when working as police. Both assumptions are incorrect.

Women officers perpetrate grim violence. Two women police officers cut the clothes from, strip-searched and humiliated Koshka Duff, leaving her with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Four women police officers strip-searched the 15-year-old Black schoolgirl known as Child Q, knowing she was on her period. Strip-searches, a form of state-sanctioned sexual assault, are no less traumatising when conducted by women.

The curious logic of ‘add women and stir’ as a violence reduction strategy is barely credible. West Mercia PC Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith repeatedly brutalised Black ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson as he lay dying. Laura Curran, a detective constable in the Met, was involved in the death of Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old who died of a brain injury and cardio-respiratory arrest after officers used excessive force to restrain him.

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This routine violence is justified both to the public and the police themselves as part of the job. Acknowledging that women in the police perpetrate violence, including against women and girls, is not to suggest that they cannot experience abuse from their male counterparts. They regularly do, as documented in the Baroness Casey Review, released last week. It is simply a recognition that feminist solidarity across lines of state power does not exist. To expect it would be a naive underestimation of how state power operates.

The very function of policing is social control. This control is enforced through violence, intimidation and coercion. Arrests, restraints, strip-searches, stop-and-searches and the power to break into and raid homes are everyday practices. As the above examples show, police who are equipped with handcuffs, batons, tasers and firearms will make use of them, regardless of their gender.

More police powers will mean more police violence. More women police will mean more police violence conducted by women

It has been suggested that the notorious vigil for Sarah Everard – who was murdered at the hands of a serving Met officer – might have gone differently had it been policed by women officers. “Differently” presumably means it wouldn’t have ended in the police beating, arresting and dispersing women protesters.

This mawkish fantasy of sisterhood between the police and public is punctured by the reality that it was, in fact, a woman officer who instigated the brutality against women protesting that night. This brutality had been ordered by a female Met Police commissioner (Cressida Dick), acting beneath a woman home secretary (Priti Patel at the time). There is no clearer proof that lady cops will not liberate us from state violence.

This inconvenient truth challenges liberal feminists to deepen their analysis of how systemic power operates. It’s uncomfortable to confront the reality that women police officers enact violence against women, but disillusionment is a necessary step to tackle the source of the problem: the institution of policing itself. Without this recognition, we let the police off the hook.

In October last year, nine days after Baroness Casey’s interim report revealed a widespread failure within the Met Police to address sexual misconduct, the government desperately announced there were now more than 50,000 women police officers in forces across England and Wales. Two days after that, the Met also boasted that it had its highest-ever number of women police officers.

But as Aviah Day and Shanice McBean have explained in their book ‘Abolition Revolution’, “demands to increase the number of Black or women officers ultimately serves to protect police legitimacy; it reframes police violence, and institutional oppression, as a product of a lack of representation and diversity”.

As the government hands more powers to the police through the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the soon-to-be Public Order Act and, chillingly, the proposed abandonment of the Human Rights Act, the public must stay clear-sighted: more police powers will mean more police violence. More women police will mean more police violence conducted by women.

In order to overhaul police violence, we first need to overhaul how we conceptualise it. Whether you attribute police violence to individual ‘bad apples’ or recognise that institutional corruption is ‘root and branch’, these trite analogies are far too inanimate given the volume of violence that police actively inflict on the public – we’d do well to stop using them.

The truth is, the police are a wolf pack: aggressive by nature, rigidly hierarchical and ferociously protective of their own. Expecting anything else is an exercise in wilful delusion – male or female, violence is in their DNA.

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