5
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Women Don't Wear "The Blues"

Image of MileHiLor

MileHiLor

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5

In 1977, I was elected “Class Sergeant” by fellow cadets for graduation ceremonies at the Southern California Police Academy. This was the first time a woman cadet would be calling cadence and presenting the class for graduation ceremonies at this traditional all-male club. Fifty recruits started the 20-week full-stress academy; 22 graduated. Three of the 22 were women; one woman dropped out.

With newly charged hopes of making a difference in the world, I drove to the clothing store for uniforms. It was a well-establish men’s-only clothing store that supplied law enforcement agencies for 50 years. I had a feeling this was not going to be a pleasant experience. My fears were confirmed when I entered and heard a salesman yell out, “What can I do for you sweetie.” I told him I was there for uniforms. He steered me in the direction of the police aid uniforms worn by non-sworn employees. I said, “No. I need uniforms for patrol work.”

The salesman’s mouth dropped after he was handed the city purchase order authorizing payment of uniforms commonly referred to as “The Blues.” He slowly said, “They’re going to try and make YOU a COP?” I could feel my heart rate increase and my face get red. This would not be the first time I would ask myself, “What the hell are you doing here!” (And, don’t call me Sweetie!)

While standing on a podium for a fitting, I was presented smaller sized blue uniforms tailored for the male body. My salesman was soon joined by another and another until they loudly communicated their doubts about women on active patrol. Everyone in the store was now fixated on my torment as I tried to remain polite. Mr. Salesman then loudly stated, “Why do YOU want to become a police officer?” I responded with, “What made YOU want to work in a clothing store?” He said, “I like to help people.” I replied, “Me too.” He did not appreciate that response and frowned as he stuck me with a straight pin. I thought; you better hope I never stop you for a traffic violation. (What kind of car do you drive?)

I offered the standard responses for choosing a career in law enforcement but refused to divulge personal reasons to these rude macho strangers. The tension continued to grow until he threw out the bomb. “What are you going to do when you become married and pregnant?” With a knee-jerk response I said, “What are you going to do when you become bald, chubby, divorced and have a prostate problem?” Okay, let’s calm down before I get my first complaint without ever even hitting the streets. I just stared back at everyone looking at me, and they eventually went back to what they were doing. Geeze! What’s it going to be like when I actually start this crazy job?

Female officers not only had to gain the respect of their peers, but the public as well. It was very disheartening to arrive at a scene for help only to face rejection with the person requesting that “a male officer be reassigned.” My department hired four patrol women only because they were seriously understaffed, and the Government offered to pay the first year of salaries with grant money. We were not welcomed by ANYONE; and continuously challenged by EVERYONE.

All aspects of the wool police uniform required major alterations. The end result was embarrassing and unsafe. The two front breast pockets were so large and long that the bottom stitching of the pockets ended up tucked inside the pants. I could put my entire hand in this front pocket so if I needed to retrieve something, it looked like I was trying to reach inside of my pants. The shirts needed to be wider in the hips; the shoulders were too broad; and the sleeves too long. Short sleeved shirts ended up going past my elbows with openings so wide you could see inside my shirt when I lifted my arm. And trust me, people wanted to see what was in there.

The male bulletproof vest could not be worn by women for 10 hours a day without agony! The initial solution – just add some pointy cones to accommodate “the girls.” The bulletproof material was stiff and over a half inch thick. I had to learn how to navigate these cones because they bumped into people and knocked things over. The one good thing - it made me feel like Zena, Princess Warrior! The worst part was the half-moon curve at the top which allowed for space under your chin when you sat in the police cruiser. When I sat down, the vest (which was too long for my torso) shifted upward tilting my head into a star gazing position.

With all the aforementioned complaints about the uniform, nothing could compare to the thick leather utility belt with the traditional tooled impressions of basket weave commonly referred to as the “Sam Browne.” This wider of the two leather belts went on the outside to hold all the tools of the trade; gun, huge radio, ammunition, handcuffs, flashlight, mace, nightstick, and utility knife. Well, no room for the utility knife so subtract that; yet it weighed 18 pounds. I weighed 145 pounds and was 21 years of age.

I quickly learned there was no going to the bathroom in a hurry while wearing the Sam Browne. It was removed only after unsnapping the 4 D-rings that were attached to the inner pants belt. The wooden nightstick was removed from the O-ring and gun removed from the holster all before finding a safe place to hang the Sam Browne. Only then were you able to start working on getting your pants off with a foot-long zipper. This process was problematic down the road when the notorious stress-related “shotguns” entered my life.

The “Sam Browne” was designed for men and did not work for the female body due to protruding hip bones. Walking around for 10 hours a day with 18 pounds of Sam Browne rubbing on hip bones caused unbearable soreness and bruising. I found myself unconsciously holding it up on both sides of my body with my hands while I walked to relieve the pressure. This caused me to have an unusual gate, not to mention it looked ridiculous when running (according to my sergeant).

It would take several years before the female Sam Browne was developed with a curvature to accommodate hip bones. In an attempt to walk normally and prevent soreness during those early years, I inserted two 4-inch compresses (from the first aid kit) over the tops of both hip bones inside of my pants. Now I could walk pain-free and with confidence until they dislodged and made their slow descent towards the bottom openings of my pants. This was a challenge; especially if I was handling a call.

After establishing myself within the ranks of the patrol, a woman City Council member requested she ride-along with a female officer on patrol. Many male officers refused to accept ride-a-longs during their 10-hour shift. I always said yes because it was a way to build bridges within the community. During the end of my shift, she asked if there were any changes I wished I could make for the women in patrol. I said there were two as I parked the cruiser at a gas station. I leaned in her direction and showed her my badge. She said, “What’s wrong with it.” I proclaimed, “It says PoliceMAN.” She took a closer look and said, “Oh my Goodness, it does. That’s not right!” I told her I agreed, but no one would listen to me. She was also informed the woman officers didn’t have a locker room. And, the current converted closet had peep holes.

Six months passed without a word from the Councilwoman. We did, however, get a new female locker room only after spraying mace into an eyeball staring out from a peephole. Then one day at the beginning of a briefing before my shift, the Watch Commander announced the arrival of new badges. He pointed to me and said, “Because you have some kind of connection with the City Council, I am supposed to give you the first one.” He handed me a new badge that said, “Police OFFICER.” I had a smile from ear to ear when I took off the “man-badge.” This would not be the last time I felt like, “Those who think they can change the world – do.”

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Image of Robin Allegra
Robin Allegra · ago
Excellent!!! What an eye-opener, and love your humor!
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Image of Betty Naughton
Betty Naughton · ago
Thanks for sharing this story, and thanks for having the courage to be a pioneer in a traditionally male career. If it hadn't been for you and other daring women, we still wouldn't have women in law enforcement, and many other formerly male fields. You were sure gutsy!
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