Seattle's First Female Officers on the Beat

  • By Adam Eisenberg
  • Posted 11/02/2001
  • Essay 3628

This essay by Adam C. Eisenberg on Seattle's first female patrol officers hired and trained to be cops on the beat equal to men (nine women hired in 1976), originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "The First Nine -- Lure of Equal Pay Changed SPD Culture Forever." The nine women were Joanne Hunt, Debbie Allen, Leslie Baranzini, Vicky Burt, Marsha Camp, Mary Kulgren, Mickey Lee, Terri MacMillan, and Peggy Timm.

Seattle Women in Blue

By Adam C. Eisenberg

Twenty-five years ago, nine women walked out onto the streets of Seattle and made history. Like the Right Stuff astronauts who blasted off into the uncertainty of space, these women faced an equally mysterious frontier -- the all-male world of police patrol.

Although detective-style “policewomen” had been on the Seattle Police Department (SPD) since 1912, the women of that earlier generation functioned more like social workers than beat cops. They also faced segregation, lower pay, and limited promotional opportunities. All that changed in 1976 when the first female patrol officers – known collectively as the “First Nine” – were hired and trained to be equals with the men.

But as the First Nine soon discovered, being trained to be equals was very different from being treated as equals. Right from the start, male instructors in the academy thought they would fail, and male co-workers did not trust them. Worst of all, the women found themselves constantly hounded by rumors about everything from their abilities on the street to their partners in the bedroom. “It’s probably true that the men really didn’t know what to do with us,” offers Joanne Hunt. “The majority of patrol officers weren’t sure if they should treat us like little sisters or daughters. All their lives they had been protecting us and now all of a sudden they were supposed to depend on us.”

Each of the First Nine -- Joanne Hunt, Debbie Allen, Leslie Baranzini, Vicky Burt, Marsha Camp, Mary Kulgren, Mickey Lee, Terri MacMillan, and Peggy Timm -- came to police work from different disciplines. Hunt, for instance, had been a fisheries graduate student and one of the nation’s first female scuba instructors before discovering she was more interested in law enforcement.

For Peggy Timm, the inspiration to become a police officer came from her older sister, who had flirted with the idea several years earlier, but SPD wasn’t hiring. “What put me over the edge,” Timm recalls, “was when I worked as a waitress at a 24 hour coffee shop in Georgetown and I regularly waited on police officers. One night I said to them, ‘I want to be what you are, a police officer,’ and they all laughed so hard. They couldn’t believe it when two years later I was in the academy.”

For many of the women, the most enticing aspect about police work was not the opportunity to carry a gun and a badge. It was the pay.

"I was working as a technical artist at Boeing," recalls Debbie Allen, “and I found out a male friend was making more money than I was even though we were working in the same job and I had a higher evaluation rating. It had never dawned on me that men were being paid more than women as part of the pay scale. When I learned the police department offered the same pay for men and women, I decided to give it a try."

Getting selected to earn that pay proved difficult. SPD had not hired officers of either sex in several years, and more than two thousand men and women applied. Candidates completed written exams, physical agility tests, polygraph tests, and an oral board. Female applicants were asked pointed questions about their sexual orientation, what they would do if they got pregnant, and if they’d ever had an abortion.

Fewer than 70 were selected to attend the police academy. More than 10 were women. At least one female was African American, the rest white. The cadets were divided into two six-month-long classes, one that started in October 1975 and a second that began in November. Both classes provided the same curriculum, but the women had very different experiences depending on which class they were in.

Those in the October class enjoyed a sense of teamwork with their classmates and found their instructors supportive. However, the four women who “survived” the November class -- Allen, Camp, Kulgren, and Timm -- found themselves at odds with the men and each other amid a sea of rumors and suspicions.

Looking back, many of the women in the November class blame the tactical instructor -- the “tac” officer -- for setting the tone. He frequently played favorites and put the women down. “What we experienced may have been similar to hazing in boot camp,” Allen observes, “except that the women were prime targets. We heard stories from the October class and it sounded like whatever hazing they went through built camaraderie. But our tac officer did just the opposite. He built distrust of our fellow classmates.”

Individual men were also singled out if they were perceived to be weak, but the women found themselves targeted for a wide variety of reasons. “I was the youngest and, at 5’3 ½” and 108 lbs., the smallest in the academy,” Timm recalls. “They were always trying to get me to gain weight, and they were always unhappy that I was short. Every single morning for six months when we lined up for roll call someone would say to me, ‘Timm, get out of that hole.’ I suppose it was funny, but at the time I didn’t feel that way.”

Marsha Camp was singled out for confidently voicing her opinions. “I thought the way to answer questions was to give my opinion back,” Camp explains, “but I was wrong. The academy was the first time I got introduced to the fact that where men are considered knowledgeable, women are called opinionated. Where men are aggressive, women are bitchy. I had never been in a situation before where I was expected to do exactly what the men were doing, and then was told, ‘You did fine for a woman.’”

Camp was particularly targeted in mock arrest scenes where police officers acted as suspects and cadets were asked to place them under arrest. The person being arrested could go easily or be difficult. For Camp’s test, the suspect refused to put his hands up even when she had her gun drawn and pointed at his face.

“They made it impossible for her to succeed,” Allen notes. “The male class president would go through a mock scene and when he told the suspects what to do, they would do it. But Marsha would tell them and they wouldn’t, and when she called for backup they wouldn’t come. The instructors turned it into a no win for her so it looked like she didn’t know what she was doing.”

One of the most damaging tactics was to have students evaluate each other. Camp and Timm were rated low by the rest of their class, prompting the training staff to suggest they seek other employment. Both women ignored the suggestion. “I said, ‘Well thank you for that information,’” Camp recalls. “’I’m a lot tougher than that and I’m pretty pigheaded. So you can fire me, but I’m not going to quit.’”

Through it all, the women found themselves constantly plagued by rumors, including claims that two female cadets were getting favorable treatment because they were sleeping with the tac officer and the physical training officer. Although both women denied the rumors, the allegations further eroded the women’s confidence in each other and in their male counterparts.

The female cadets in the November class were also given the sense that out on the street they would be all alone. "One of the first things they told us was that the citizens hate you, and that all we could count on was each other," Allen recalls. "I could understand this because we were in the mid-seventies after all of the protests. But then they went on to say that as women, well, our coworkers weren't going to accept us either. They gave us the impression that it would be us against the world.” “They definitely came out and said the men would not stand by us in the field,” adds Camp. “I never found it to be true. Once I got out of the academy, the men I worked around had the attitude of ‘Well, let's see. If she can do the job, then that's fine.’ Maybe not wholehearted support, but they were willing to give me a chance.”

By the time the two academy classes ended, nine women remained to graduate, all of them white. The graduates hit the streets in the spring of 1976 and began four months of field training with officers individually assigned to each of them. Again, some of the women were paired with male field training officers -- called FTOs -- who thought they didn’t belong. “The lieutenant that was in charge of the student officers told me he was going to do anything he could to fire me because he didn’t think women should be on the police department,” Mary Kulgren recalls. “My first FTO was fine, but then the lieutenant put me with a guy who absolutely hated women. This officer repeatedly told me he thought women were to be f----d and that was it. That’s what he said as we were driving around the city and he was training me.”

“I think they were waiting for us women to fail,” Timm says. “No one said, ‘We’re waiting for you to fail,’ but you just knew it. They assumed we would get into a patrol car and see something and go ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I’ve got to resign.’ Well, that didn’t happen. We got good grades and passed the probationary period.” “The crusty old cops were the easiest to sway and to turn around” Vicky Burt notes. “You could do the simplest thing and they were so amazed that this female could do anything that after that they were behind you 100 percent. They quickly became my biggest supporters.”

“I had been on not too long” Hunt adds, “and I walked into the roll call one day and one of the older officers looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re kind of cute. I think you’re a spinner.’ Fortunately, I knew a spinner was a woman that you can set on top of your lap and spin. I looked at him and said, ‘At 145 pounds, I would break your turntable.’ He laughed and thought it was funnier than hell, and after that we got along fine.”

Ultimately, the hardest part of the job was dealing with the constant rumors that swirled around them. “There were only nine of us and 1200 of them, so rumors were flying,” Allen recalls. “All I know is that if I had had sex with every man that the rumors said I had, it would have been a physical miracle.”

Besides rumors about their supposed sexual escapades, errors made in the field became ammunition for those men who felt women just didn’t belong in police work. “When you’d hear a story about somebody really screwing up you’d go, ‘Please, God, don’t let the officer be a woman,’ Hunt says. “That feeling is something you can’t get away from because as a woman if you screw up it reflects on all the women, but if a white male screws up it’s just him. I guess there won’t be real equality until a woman can do a stupid thing and it just becomes ‘Officer X did a stupid thing,’ and they don’t go, ‘See, I told you women couldn’t do this job.’”

Twenty-five years after the First Nine hit the streets, women are still striving for that equality. But tremendous progress has been made, and today more than 180 female officers – white, black, Asian, and Latino – work for SPD in positions throughout the department.

And what of the First Nine? Burt and Baranzini left the department early on to start families. Kulgren, Lee, Camp, Hunt, and Timm stayed for varying tenures and earned detective, sergeant and lieutenant ranks. Two remain active police officers: MacMillan, who is now a sergeant, and Allen, who has risen to the highest possible rank of Assistant Chief. "When I came out of the academy,” Allen reflects, “I thought I might not stick around because the experience had prepared me to expect things to be pretty dismal with my peers. But once I got out on the street, I really liked the guys I worked with. Certainly there were men who weren't supportive and men who never would accept women as police officers, but fortunately they were the minority."


This essay first appeared as "The First Nine -- Lure of Equal Pay Changed SPD Culture Forever," Seattle Post-Intelligencer/Seattle Times, Focus Section, October 28, 2001, p. D-4.

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