More than a century after the first female police officers began walking the beat, women continue to be underrepresented in the ranks of law enforcement agencies nationwide, despite some gains in recent years.

As of 2012, women accounted for just 12% of the approximately 670,000 sworn officers in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. That was an increase from 9.8% in 1995.

Trends in the number of female officers have varied by the type of department and jurisdictional level. For example, the percentage of women working as officers in local police departments grew from 7.6% in 1987 to nearly 12% in 2007. Over the same period, the percentage of women officers in state police departments grew from 3.8% to 6.5%, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported.

Meanwhile, sheriff’s departments saw their percentage of women officers decrease from 15.6% in 1997 to 11.2% a decade later. Federal agencies saw only a small increase in the percentage of women officers, according to the BJS report.

Still, women have overcome the odds to attain top positions in law enforcement. In November 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General. If her nomination is confirmed, Lynch will be the first African-American woman to lead the Department of Justice. Lynch has served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York since 2010, a job she also held from 1999 to 2001.

Among the other women currently serving in law enforcement leadership roles at the national level are:

  • Stacia A. Hylton has held the directorship of the U.S. Marshals Service since 2010. Hylton earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice before embarking on a career in law enforcement that now spans more than three decades. As director of the Marshals Service, she oversees more than 5,500 employees and handles a $1.19 billion annual budget.
  • Michele M. Leonhart, who also earned an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice, started her career with the Drug Enforcement Administration as a special agent in 1980. Leonhart was promoted to acting administrator of the DEA in 2007 and assumed the permanent role in 2010. As administrator, Leonhart directs an organization of more than 10,000 employees stationed throughout the United States and across the globe.
  • Polly Hanson has served as chief of the Amtrak Police Department since November 2012, leading a force of more than 500 sworn and civilian employees responsible for the safety and security of railroad passengers. The police department has more than 30 locations in the 46 states where Amtrak operates.

The likes of Leonhart, Hanson and Hylton are following in the footsteps of other groundbreaking women who have led federal law enforcement agencies, including Janet Reno, who served as U.S. Attorney General from 1993 to 2001, and Janet Napolitano, who was Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013.

Women have also risen through the ranks in major municipal police departments across the country. In recent years, women were named as chiefs of departments in: Raleigh, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Santa Monica, California; Sarasota, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio. The hiring of a woman chief marked a first for each city except Raleigh.   

According to the National Center for Women & Policing, it wasn’t until 1985 in Portland, Oregon, that a woman was first appointed as chief of police in a major U.S. city.

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