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'30 by 30' calls for 30% of police recruits to be women by the year 2030

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

With police in the U.S. facing criticism for using excessive force and discriminating against people of color, some departments are hiring more women. That's because female officers are often seen as being good communicators and skilled at de-escalating situations. NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to Madison, Wis., a participant in the 30x30 initiative, which calls for 30% of police recruits to be women by the year 2030.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: At the police department's training academy in Madison, recruit classes go through lots of scenarios.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So what we're practicing today and what we're teaching is, you're all by yourself and you're handcuffing this person.

CORLEY: There are 46 people in this class. Nikki Acker is one of the nine female trainees. She never imagined being a police officer until she got a job working as a clerk in the records department.

NIKKI ACKER: I guess I kind of had in my mind a stereotype of, you know, they're all just these big guys with military backgrounds and blah, blah, blah, you know? And I think once I started learning more and getting more involved in reading reports and seeing the calls and that type of thing, I learned there's, like, so much more than that.

CORLEY: They're often people with good communication skills, she says, and problem-solving skills. So Acker says despite all the controversy surrounding policing, her husband and friends encouraged her to try it.

ACKER: You know, if I don't, then who does?

CORLEY: There are slightly more than 500 sworn police officers in Madison. Women make up 28% of the force. It was several decades ago that a former police chief focused on creating a more diverse police force, convinced that it would be beneficial. Other leaders stayed true to the commitment. The founders of the 30x30 initiative say it's not just about getting women in the door, but on transforming police agencies by taking a deep look at policies, procedures and culture.

PAIGE VALENTA: There's been a lot of scrutiny to the profession, understandably and justifiably so.

CORLEY: Madison Assistant Police Chief Paige Valenta is the highest-ranking woman on the force. Interest in the 30x30 initiative surged in police departments after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. While many agree that police departments should be reflective of the communities they serve, critics argue efforts to hire women and people of color can't eliminate long-standing bias and racism in policing. Valenta says the challenging atmosphere has made recruiting difficult throughout the country.

VALENTA: And it has not traditionally been a profession that's very welcoming to women. And so I do think there is a long ways to go nationally. But I do think we are doing a lot of really good things and are way ahead of the curve here in Madison.

CORLEY: Even with simple low-cost steps, says Valenta, like using inclusive language - the department says patrol officer instead of patrolman. Women can wear a load-bearing vest instead of a belt full of equipment around the waist.

Theresa Magyera, the sergeant who oversees recruitment and training at the academy, says despite changes, there are still barriers. And the really difficult part of the job revolves around kids and families.

THERESA MAGYERA: I was in patrol when I got pregnant, and I stayed working till I was 14 weeks pregnant.

CORLEY: Pregnant officers can be assigned light duty and work inside. Madison police stations also have breastfeeding rooms for officers with infants. Magyera landed the 8 to 4 p.m. shift as the academy's training director. New recruits are often assigned to afternoons or night shifts, and that makes finding day care for children challenging. What can also be daunting are the physical aspects of the entrance exam. Magyera says the training team offers help to women and men who don't pass the fitness test on the first try.

MAGYERA: We allow them a second chance opportunity. We give them specific exercises to help them increase their pushup count or situp count, and they come back and they pass it. And that's a huge win.

CORLEY: Patrol Officer Nicole Schmitgen, on the way to answer a call, says she knows about that struggle.

NICOLE SCHMITGEN: I was still in grad school when I applied the first time. I couldn't get my pushups (laughter).

CORLEY: The second time around, she was successful, after other recruits and family helped her train.

SCHMITGEN: I'm hopeful that, you know, people, especially women, can realize that, you know, this isn't just about the physical aspect of things. Does it help to be physically fit? Absolutely. But that's only, I would say, probably 10 to 20% of my job.

CORLEY: This is the second year on the job for Schmitgen. She patrols Madison's Central District around the state capitol and part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. She says while people think policing is about guns and drugs and driving fast, it's more about communication and helping people.

SCHMITGEN: We're checking for a subject at her apartment who is known to have dementia.

CORLEY: She types on her computer to get more information about the woman. There's a picture. In just a few minutes, she's at the apartment complex.

SCHMITGEN: Madison Police Bureau (ph). Can you open the door, please?

CORLEY: Police found the woman later, safe and sound. The summer is a busy time for calls, says Schmitgen, and the reaction she gets as a female police officer varies.

SCHMITGEN: I've had calls where the victim is a survivor of sexual assault, and they prefer speaking to a woman. And that's my purpose. That's why I'm here. And then there's where I'm being catcalled. I'm being called a bitch. I'm being called, you know, everything under the sun. And it comes in waves (laughter).

CORLEY: University of Wisconsin law professor Keith Findley is a member of Madison's Police Civilian Oversight Board. He says there's a plethora of research that shows women on the force have a positive impact on police departments and communities. He says they are often better at communicating and de-escalating tense situations.

KEITH FINDLEY: They are sued less frequently than their male counterparts. They make fewer discretionary arrests, especially of non-white residents. They use force less frequently and excessive force less frequently than their male counterparts.

CORLEY: He says research shows they are trusted more in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, both of which are policed more heavily, but not by everyone. Activist Brandi Grayson scoffs at the idea of gender changing the culture of policing. She's the CEO of the nonprofit Urban Triage and has been at the forefront of protests over the deaths of Black men killed by police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Grayson says there's little difference if it's a female police officer in a patrol car.

BRANDI GRAYSON: Maybe they don't yell as much, but they still arrest us. Maybe they don't shoot us, but we still get arrested. We still get ticketed. And oftentimes, when you are part of a vulnerable population - when I say vulnerable, I mean oppressed; women are oppressed as well, right? - you have to conform or you're out.

CORLEY: Which is why the 30x30 initiative is so important, says co-founder Ivonne Roman. She's also a former chief of the Newark, N.J., Police Department. Roman says 30% of marginalized people in any group is a tipping point.

IVONNE ROMAN: Where they are able to say, you know, this isn't right and this is affecting us negatively, and they don't feel like there will be negative consequences associated with it.

CORLEY: Roman says as the 30x30 initiative grows, the influence of a critical mass of women in law enforcement will be key in redefining what policing means.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Madison, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.