Women making inroads in Chippewa Valley law enforcement

·6 min read

Feb. 25—EAU CLAIRE — In her 22-year career in law enforcement, Altoona Police Chief Kelly Bakken is used to breaking gender barriers.

She was once the only female officer with the Baldwin Police Department, the lone female deputy with the Jackson County sheriff's office and the first woman police chief with the Black River Falls Police Department before accepting the position as the first female chief with the Altoona Police Department in 2019.

But blazing a trail isn't always easy, and Bakken said she'd be glad to have more female backup in the traditionally male-dominated profession.

With local police training programs reporting a surge in female candidates, the evidence suggests Bakken may be getting her wish as more women attempt to follow her lead.

"My opinion is that females add a different and needed dynamic to law enforcement," Bakken said. "It's important to have that gender diversity in law enforcement."

The numbers show the gender divide may be shrinking, as 36% of the students in the Law Enforcement Academy at Chippewa Valley Technical College this spring are women. That's double the rate last spring and more than triple the rate in spring 2019, when only two of 21 cadets were women.

Similarly, the criminal justice and rehabilitation program at UW-Stout in Menomonie has experienced a significant uptick in female students, who account for 44% of graduates in the past four years, said program director and associate professor Colleen Etzbach.

"There definitely is an increase in women in law enforcement," Etzbach said. "More women are realizing they can make a difference and they want to be out there to help make their communities safe."

The Wisconsin Department of Justice reports that 1,778, or 13%, of the state's certified law enforcement officers were women as of Feb. 1. The percentage drops to 5% for top law enforcement executives, as the state has 27 female sheriffs and police chiefs at its 554 law enforcement agencies.

A sign of the changing times occurred last month during an otherwise routine briefing before an evening shift at the Eau Claire Police Department. As the five officers sat down for the daily update, one of them noted that everyone at the table was female.

A little research showed the historic nature of the event: It was the department's first all-female patrol shift.

"It wasn't planned and happened organically, which made it even more memorable," said Sgt. Bridget Coit, one of the officers starting a shift at 4:30 p.m. that day to join male officers already out on the patrol. "Being a part of that moment was very special."

While only one or two female officers typically are on a shift at a time, the recent increase in female officers made the moment possible. The 10 female officers make up about 10% of the department.

The department marked the occasion with a Facebook post Jan. 26 that included a photo of the group and these words: "For the first time in Eau Claire Police Department history, we deployed an all-female patrol shift. Join us in celebrating with these awesome women."

The post went locally viral, attracting 8,000 "likes" and nearly 1,000 comments.

"We hope the photo and moment inspires other females and young girls to pursue their dreams and to confidently know anything is possible," Coit said.

Several community members said the post would do exactly that, serving as an inspiration to all women and particularly to young women considering a career in law enforcement, said Riley McLennan, a female public information officer for the department.

Eric Anderson, director of the criminal justice/law enforcement program at CVTC, said the rising share of women in the Law Enforcement Academy is likely a reflection of regional police officials seeking to have the makeup of their departments more closely resemble their communities.

"They are striving to make sure their departments reflect the community not only on race but also on gender," Anderson said.

To do that, they are recruiting more women.

Bakken, Anderson and Etzbach all cited research indicating that women bring more than just gender diversity to policing. They also tend to bring a calmer, more sensitive approach.

While acknowledging that every officer is unique, Bakken said studies have shown female officers overall tend to de-escalate tense cases and thus be involved in fewer use of force situations.

"I'm 5-4 and 130 pounds, and I've worked many shifts by myself and sent many people to prison for the rest of their lives, but I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to be physical to take someone into custody," Bakken said.

Instead, she relies on communication to de-escalate situations — a practice she considers more important than ever after several high-profile use of force cases in 2020 caused policing practices to come under intense scrutiny across the country.

"I'm persuasive," Bakken said, adding that she sees the same characteristics in many female officers.

Anderson said women often have a way of calming things down at a stressful time, which can lead to more success investigating crimes such as sexual assault or domestic violence.

"Female officers are a great asset to law enforcement agencies for many reasons," McLennan said. "Some of these reasons are building rapport with victims in cases or with female suspects, diversifying the force to help strengthen communities ties and bringing different perspectives to cases."

Some suspects and victims who are intimidated by male officers will change their demeanor completely and communicate more openly when a female officer is involved, Etzbach added.

That said, Bakken stressed that not all suspects respond the same way and that it's necessary to have males in law enforcement as well.

"It's on us to use the best too that we have for a particular situation," said Bakken, who leads a department in which three of 15 full- and part-time officers, or 20%, are women. The Altoona Police Department also is sponsoring one female recruit through the Law Enforcement Academy.

Bakken hopes attitudes have changed enough that women entering the field today will not face some of the struggles she did earlier in her career.

"I felt like I had to prove myself more than my male counterparts," Bakken said, adding that she is confident she eventually was able to earn the trust and respect of other officers.

"There still are some struggles when people don't think females can do the job," she said, "but I'm here to prove to them that females can do the job."