“There are several myths you grow up believing: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and a female cop.”

Even after 22 years, town of Elon Chief of Police Kelly Blackwelder vividly remembers her field trainer telling her this in her eight weeks of training when she was 23 years old. No one said anything, even the other female officer in the room. Blackwelder never spoke out about the incident in fear of isolating herself and rocking the boat. 

Female law enforcement officers make up less than 14% of all officers in the U.S., and as of 2020, women make up less than 4% of police chiefs, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics

Across the nation, police stations are making the 30x30 pledge — a commitment to making 30% of law enforcement employees women by 2030, according to the 30x30 website. The town of Elon and Burlington Police Departments are two departments making that effort. 

Facing challenges

Throughout her career, Blackwelder said she felt she had to try harder than her male coworkers.

“I felt like I had to prove I was twice as tough as the young guy next to me,” Blackwelder said. “I think it instilled in me a very driven mindset that I already knew. I almost had that chip on my shoulders, ‘I'm already going to be at a disadvantage, so I've got to do it harder, faster, smarter and better than anybody else.’”

Blackwelder said she faced sexist jokes and innuendos from coworkers and sexual harassment from superiors as a young officer. 

“The culture was very different, and it was not uncommon to have sexual harassment in the workplace. And I was a victim of that, I faced that,” Blackwelder said. “I think if you're a female, everybody's wanting to be your friend, but some of that was misplaced. They wanted to be your friend in order to get closer to you because they were interested you in a different reason — not because you were a peer and a brother or sister in law enforcement.”

In a 2020 study published by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 70% of female officers have reported sexual harassment by coworkers and superiors. 

Blackwelder said she is conscious of the experiences she’s had while policing in the community. 

“I'm probably more sympathetic toward domestic violence issues because I've seen that in the home; More sympathetic with sexual abuse situations because I've seen it in the home; More in tune to … the struggles that women have in general — in our police department, but also in our community,” Blackwelder said.

Lt. Shelly Katkowski of the Burlington Police Department also said the benefits of being a female in the field, including helping in domestic violence cases and intense situations.

“Typically, what you see is that women in law enforcement, they use less force. They have less complaints. They discharged their firearms less,” Katkowski said. “I'm very careful with my words, like there's almost always a conversation before a fight. So I always try and I think a lot of times, you can bring a calming voice to a situation before a fight.”

Town of Elon officer Crystal Pyron also said her experiences as a woman and a mother have affected her work in the force.

Pyron knew she wanted to start a career as she watched her 21-year-old daughter get sworn into law enforcement. Pyron had been a stay-at-home mother for 24 years before deciding to follow in her daughter’s footsteps and join the police force.

“I do have five daughters, so I would have to say that I am more sensitive to different things and feel like I have more passion towards things,” Pyron said. “I do love being in the community. I love being with the elderly people and different things like that might have a little bit more of a sensitivity of being a female, being a woman.”

While Katkowski said she doesn’t face discrimination in the workplace, she struggles with being taken seriously by people in the community who are expecting male officers to respond to the call. 

“They're not expecting a woman to show up on scene because that's not what people think of historically and police officers, they have this image of this big strong guy doing this job,” Katkowski said. “I have people make comments of, ‘Oh, how do you set everything on your belt,’ ‘Oh, look at you. You're so cute.’ Like, you're just like, ‘Oh, please, I train. I work just as hard. I do the same things that the men do.’ But there's just that expectation of what historically police officers have been right.”

Making change

After the discrimination Blackwelder faced as a young officer, she said she is cognizant of these issues in her position now. 

To hold her officers' behavior accountable, Blackwelder hired lieutenants to supervise them 24/7. 

“You can ask any of my officers, accountability is No. 1,” Blackwelder said. “If we can't be accountable for our own actions in house, how do we hold folks outside accountable for breaking the law?” 

Blackwelder said supervisors are required to have monthly meetings with their officers to ensure accountability in the station.

“We have had female officers here come forward and say, ‘Hey, this happened and I felt uncomfortable about it.’ And we address it,” Blackwelder said. “It was enough that she was uncomfortable and we dealt with it, so I know that it works. And I think it all has to do with leadership and accountability and making sure that we are the shepherds, so to speak, of our own herd. Not to mention the folks that we're out here protecting.”

In addition to holding officers accountable, the town of Elon Police Department is also making an effort to hire more women. 

Acknowledging the reasons women may not be working as officers, such as having children, Blackwelder has hired two part-time women officers. 

“I just think women in general are super strong. I don't think people understand the things that we have gone through,” Blackwelder said. “At times, they do see us as a weaker sex. … I think we have a long way to go, but I think we're just a powerful group.”

The Burlington Police Department currently has 19% female officers, but are still dedicated to making it 30% by 2030, according to Katkowski. She also said increasing diversity in the department is an important goal. 

“Any police department, you want to match the demographic of your community, because diversity is important and we know that and we know that diverse people bring different skill sets to all positions and recognize that that is valuable and it's valuable in our community when we have diversity we can meet those needs as a community,” Katkowski said.