Fort Wayne, Indiana Officials Discuss Women in Police and Fire Services

The sheriff's deputy who was overpowered in Atlanta three weeks ago by a man who then shot a judge and two others was described repeatedly as a 51-year-old grandmother.

"No stereotyping in that," grumbled Fort Wayne Police Capt. Dottie Davis, a 23-year veteran of the force who heads the city's police training center.

Since the shootings, pundits and talk show hosts have speculated on whether the incident would have happened had the deputy been a man.

We'll never know, but one thing is clear: Stereotypes of women as the weaker sex still exist, and that fuels speculation women aren't as good as men in jobs such as firefighting and law enforcement.

Are women buying into that premise? Or are they simply not interested in public safety? Or are women discriminated against when they apply for these jobs?

Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: In Fort Wayne, women firefighters are a minority, representing only 5 percent of the workforce. In the police department, the number is slightly better: Women comprise 22 percent of the department.

Fire Chief Tim Davie said the department has had trouble recruiting a diverse pool of candidates. It uses a variety of methods, from ads to personal contacts to making presentations to various groups.

History is on the department's side. Davie said, for many years, the Fort Wayne Fire Department was pretty much a white-male-dominated field. It has been only about 25 years since the first female firefighter was hired here, he said.

So can women do a job that might require dragging a large person out of a burning building?

Davie said most firefighters work in teams, but nevertheless, women and men are required to drag a 165-pound dummy by themselves during training. The job requires upper-body strength, and recruits need to be in good physical shape.

Both women and men leave the training academy because they cant handle the physical responsibilities or the classroom portion.

Women who stick it out tend to do well, however, Davie said. "We've had females in a number of leadership roles. If they want to move through the ranks, they do that."

He'd like to get the word out that women can do the job and are welcome. "We're certainly committed to diversity in this organization, and the dilemma for us has been the ability to attract people in the application process. I absolutely would encourage women. Once they get on the job, they tend to excel."

When Davis joined the Fort Wayne Police Department in 1982, only seven women were on the force. If there's one thing she believes in, it's that women can do the job as well as men can. She was attracted to law enforcement because of her love of the outdoors and the fact that each day is different. "The department has afforded me a lot of opportunities for education and advancement through the ranks."

Like the fire department, the police department has trouble attracting women and minority applicants. Out of the most recent pool of 696 applicants, only 75 were women and/or minorities. "We need to increase both pools," she said.

"One of the things we have to do is start in middle school," she said. "By the time people are in college, they already have a career in mind."

"All recruits have to be physically fit to get into the training academy, and must maintain that fitness after graduation. Women get the same training as men. And despite what people see on television," Davis said, "95 percent of our job is communicating with the public. The other 5 percent, were placed in a position where were going to have to place hands on somebody."

Davis has had teeth knocked loose and been shot at during her career, but said that's not the norm. In a potentially dangerous situation, at least two police officers are dispatched most times.

The goal is to defuse a situation, and female officers for the most part do a good job of de-escalating situations, she said.

Setting aside physical fitness, Davis said female officers need something just as important: command presence. You have to develop a voice. You cant have a wimpy, weak command voice. You have to let people know you are in charge of a situation.

She has had instances when shes gotten out of a car while on duty and had people say, I want a man.

She has told them she's the person assigned to the complaint and she'll handle it.

As director of training, she has had some young male recruits automatically give male officers on staff respect only to test female officers.

I don't allow that to happen, she said.