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America's Police Departments Aim to Put More Women on the Force

Although more American women are becoming police officers, their numbers have only reached about 78,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many law enforcement agencies are working hard to recruit more women. Among them is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County police department, which serves the largest city in North Carolina.

When Sherie Pearsall was growing up in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Charlotte, she saw few, if any, women patrolling the streets. Now, one in seven officers working for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police is female, and she has become a sergeant on the department's special response "SWAT" team. . .

Sgt. Pearsall is a single mother with an athletic build and perfectly manicured hands. After a training session at the Police Academy firing range, she is breathing hard. "This is one of the drills we normally do," she says, "shooting on the move as opposed to static shooting. It's a lot harder to shoot when you are moving than when you are standing still. And we do a lot of that, a lot of drills like that."

On this humid day, Sgt. Pearsall has been running up and down the firing range. She's wearing a lot of heavy protective gear, and carrying a large gun. But she doesn't complain. Being a police officer is "the only way to go," she says. "My outlet is SWAT. I cut my hand training with these guys, they're a handful. But it's very physical, very team oriented. That's one of the things I like about it. The guys are supportive out here even though we only have a few women on the team."

For years, Sherie Pearsall thought police officers were out of touch with the community. But that changed in 1994 when a mentor suggested she try police work herself. Now she's a Community Policing Supervisor, in charge of making sure officers stay in touch with the people they are sworn to serve. "I think community policing is geared more towards negotiating and organizing and nurturing," she says, "and that's what we do as women and I think we are a good fit."

Experts say the pace of integrating women into the nation's police forces remains slow. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Major Lisa Shores says that's a shame, because women bring unique strengths to the job. "We know that, in general, women typically tend to be good communicators," she says. "They have good analytical skills. They are good problem solvers. They are empathetic and are able to show a great deal of compassion."

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Department works to attract more women, recruiters like Alex Watson have been canvassing the city, holding job fairs and offering tours of the Police Academy. " We have to make our department reflective of the community we serve," he says. "We just want to make the numbers even. People feel comfortable communicating with people who sort of have something in common with them. That's why we are starting this campaign for recruiting women right now."

The new campaign is giving the department an opportunity to dispel policing myths, such as the one that says you have to be built like a wrestler to be a cop. Major Lisa Shores shrugs and says the way television and films usually portray police work is an obstacle to recruitment. "Typically what you see are big strong men chasing down the bad guys," she says. "And there is a lot of physical confrontation involved and things of that nature and stuff that women may not necessarily be drawn to."

The department sets no age limit for recruits, as long as they are in good physical health. And there's no limit to what female officers can do on the force -- from bicycle patrols to units investigating drug crimes and homicides. But Major Shores says women still don't see themselves in such roles. "As a little girl growing up," she says, "if you're looking to role models in the field of policing, those folks that you typically see are men. So we want to make sure that the idea is planted."

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department works to ensure that women who have expressed an interest in policing realize they have plenty of options, Sgt. Sherie Pearsall wants prospective recruits to know that becoming a police officer doesn't mean losing that feminine touch. "I was a woman before I was a police officer," she says with a laugh, "and when I retire from being a police officer, I'll still be a woman. Got to have your nails done!"