The Woman Police Officer’s Image

How I learned that overcompensating can lead to disaster

By Madeline Horner  |   Jul 17, 2015
Photo Courtesy of the St. Louis Police Foundation

When I told my father that I wanted to be a police officer, this was his reply: “Why don’t you become a lawyer instead?” I can’t even count anymore the number of women who, upon finding out that I am a police officer, ask me things like, “Aren’t you scared to be out there all by yourself?” “Do you have a male partner to look after you?” This is the baseline for women in policing. This is the battle that we feel we’re fighting.

Most women in policing see themselves as strong, intelligent and capable manifestations of humanity. Every woman in policing should believe that she is an equal to her male peers in every way. We understand the basic anatomical and physiological differences, but we also understand that policing ability is not wholly dependent on those differences. If you look fairly at the span of physical fitness, men and women are equal.

Consider these two men: A 300-lb. donut-eater and a 200-lb. solid-muscle SWAT sergeant. Two very different physical types of officer, but only one is someone we would really consider a desirable police partner. In a fight we would all want the SWAT sergeant as a check-in. But the 300-lb. donut-eater? I dare say I’d rather have a 150-lb. female former soccer star as my back up in a fight. At least then I can trust my back up won’t have a coronary before the fight is over.

Bottom line: Fitness is what you put into it, and technical fighting skills can make up for many fitness deficiencies.

So with this physical truth in mind, why then are women still fighting the battle for equal appreciation in law enforcement?

The Woman’s Desire

I remember the first time that encountered blatant sexism at work. I was asked to ride with another officer for a couple weeks to help him reacclimatize to patrol after being at a desk assignment. I’ll never forget that moment because it was a truly defining experience for me as a woman in policing. I’ve been called a traitor to my gender for not being sympathetic to my female cohorts when they cried about their difficulties on the job. I prided myself on my work ethic, law knowledge, physical and fighting abilities, and thus good reputation. Now for the first time had a brief glimmer of what they were talking about.

It was the end of our first day, and I was driving us back to the station. We were making getting-to-know-you small talk and he asked me, “Do you have a problem being a woman?”

I was confused for a second because it seemed like a very strange question. I realized that he was actually asking if I had a problem being a woman in a “man’s profession.” I responded simply, “No, I don’t. I work like a man and fight like a man. You can ask any of the guys on my squad and they’ll tell you that they would be glad to have me show up as their first check-in if they were in a fight. So I don’t have any of those issues.”

The look of disbelief on his face followed by a non-committal “huh” made my blood go straight hot. I nearly stopped the car and told him to get out. I was not interested in being disrespected inside my own patrol car. Over the course of our time together I became angrier as his sexist attitude filled the space between us. I also became more miserable as I made it my goal to show him that I was not only equal to men, but better—by a long shot—than him.

You’ll be shocked to hear that my plan was not only a failure, but it completely backfired. My efforts had me looking less like a hard-charging competent officer and instead someone trying way too hard. To my squad mates it seemed that I had lost faith in my abilities and was now compensating for this loss. So they then started to be concerned about my abilities. This compounded my misery and made the whole situation almost unbearable. It wasn’t until a friend on the squad pulled me aside and pointed out that I was not acting like myself and it was making me look bad. Only then did I realize that I had found the real problem with women in policing.

It was me.

The Woman’s True Enemy

I had allowed someone else’s ignorant beliefs to affect my self-perception. I gave him absolute power over my feelings and my behavior. Had I ignored his comment and gone on about my business as usual, it would have made my point far better than my haphazard overcompensation.

There are sexist men, but as women you can always choose how you will respond to them. The women I have seen who have the hardest time are the women who believe that they are different. Women who flout that they work twice as hard just to be seen as average are viewed as an affront to their male peers. Women who attempt to use their gender as an excuse to avoid difficult assignments or to climb the political ladder are an affront to their female peers. Highlighting your gender as if it makes you anything other than human is what causes the problem.

The answer is simple. Be who you are. Any fears or doubts that you have about yourself will immediately be seen and transferred to your squad. Remember, you’re an officer trained to read people for a living. You would be a fool to think that your peers aren’t also reading you, and judging you based on what they read. You can bake cookies and wear mascara and still be seen as a great officer. People don’t care about your feminine traits—so long as when you come to work, you do solid work.


There are men and women who don’t need to be the police. The profession is most certainly not for everyone. Our service is not defined by gender, it is defined by attitude. Your willingness to jump in a fight, go hands-on with a robbery suspect, write a complex report, learn from your mistakes and take control of a chaotic crime scene—those are all things that make good police officers.

And they are contingent on a good attitude. As a woman in policing you must carry yourself with the attitude that you are equal regardless of what people say or do to you. As you move through your career with the things you have earned, you will not only be equal, but you will look better.

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Madeline Horner
Officer Madeline Horner has worked as a police officer eight years. During her time as an officer she has worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, and as a training officer for the police academy. Officer Horner currently holds her General Instructor Certification and is a Rapid Deployment Instructor. She is the current record holder for the N.C. women's Police Officer's Physical Abilities Test and has received her Advanced Law Enforcement Certificate. Officer Horner received a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Appalachian State University and is currently seeking a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology in the hopes of one day working with officers and improving the mental and emotional health of officers involved in critical incidents.
Madeline Horner

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