When you or your family calls police for help, chances are the officers who arrive are going to be men.
U.S. Census numbers show women make up 51% of the country’s population, but they make up only 12-14% of law enforcement, according to the latest data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“I really didn’t think of any other career path that I wanted to do,” Brianna Dion said. “I set my mind to it, and here I am.”
“It’s very important for me to make a difference,” Yeishallee Berrios said.
“There’s obstacles throughout this whole 20 weeks,” Dion said. “Every week is an obstacle, and you just have to push through it mentally and physically. I mean, when we originally started, there’s a class of 46, and only three of us were female, so it’s a little intimidating going in with all those guys, you know what I mean?”
“What society sets -- we are the weakest sex, if you will, to do certain tasks,” Berrios said. “I want to be able to break that. I want to be able to, you know, teach other women and other little girls to actually be able to believe in themselves.”
Law enforcement agencies in Central Florida say they have been working for years to recruit more women, but many said it has been a challenge.
“Historically, it has been a male-dominated career,” Orange County Sheriff John Mina said. “It’s a shame because, you know, our country and the state of Florida -- we’re half female. So, you would think that we can get a little closer to half the workforce with females. So that’s why we’re trying to improve that.”
A group of police leaders, researchers and professional organizations have joined forces with New York University School of Law’s Policing Project and the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives to launch what they called the “30x30 Initiative.”
More than 250 law enforcement agencies across the country have signed on, pledging to increase the number of women on their forces, so they make up 30% of the roster by 2030.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is one of three Central Florida agencies that have signed on, so far.
The Orlando Police Department and New Smyrna Beach Police Department also made the pledge.
Recruiting more women
Mina said the secret to hiring more women is recruiting everywhere.
“We’ve traveled as far west as Texas,” he said. “We go to military installations all across the southeastern U.S., including Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune. If you look at the military, the military is a diverse workforce. So we do get a lot of females, we do get a lot of diverse applicants from the military.”
Their efforts also include large events, like Florida Classic Weekend in Orlando, which draws thousands of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M University football fans.
“We have different positions that we have available,” Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Cindy Zayas said.
Zayas works as a field recruiter for the agency, and she spent Florida Classic Weekend at a job fair at Amway Center.
“I see people that maybe were thinking about a career in law enforcement before, but they just didn’t know how to take the initial steps,” she said. “We can talk to them, reach out, and they have an outlet or they have somewhere and some way to engage with us.”
Zayas said female officers and deputies have an inherent skill that helps them more than men.
“Research has shown that we are better with the victims, especially with sexual assault and child abuse. We are very compassionate,” she said. “We have a really big role in law enforcement that’s very beneficial to the community, as well as our fellow officers.”
“Law enforcement has been calling me since I was little, and that’s when I decided to do it,” said Madison DaSilva, a criminal justice major at the University of Central Florida.
She stopped by Zayas’ booth at the job fair and expressed interest in joining OCSO.
“I’m like any woman that wants to know more women in law enforcement, but it’s more important to me about who’s right for the job,” she said. “You know, you do need women so that you can connect with other women in the community, but the most important thing to me is the safety of the community -- whether that be men or women.”
Confronting societal norms
Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Kaira Simmons was sworn in almost two years ago.
“There’s at least one female on each squad,” she said.
She said she kept her application to the police academy a secret from her family because of how they might react.
“I actually didn’t tell my dad until the last minute that I was doing this, and he definitely had his reservations -- absolutely not,” she said. “(He) told me so many times, ‘you could just come back home,’ ‘we’ll figure it out,’ ‘you can work at my job doing something like security,’ and I’m like, ‘we can’t work together. We can’t do that.’”
Chief Deputy Denise Demps, who has served with OCSO for more than 30 years, had a similar story.
“I haven’t told my mom, I didn’t tell my grandmother. I didn’t tell my sister. I didn’t tell anyone in the family,” she said recalling when she applied to the academy. “I was afraid that they would try to talk me out of it.”
Now, she and her sister are both deputies.
Demps became the highest ranking women within the sheriff’s office when she was promoted to chief deputy in 2021.
“I’ve done everything you can think of in this agency, except fly a helicopter, canine and mounted (patrol),” she said. “Without women in law enforcement, we’re missing a critical aspect from what the community needs.”
As for the “30x30 Initiative,” Demps believes it’s a start.
“I think it is a good solution. I think we could do more, but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “It’s going to be challenging, of course, but I think it is an initiative where we are focusing on a great need.”
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