Alice Stebbins Wells was a minister and social worker who in 1910 became the first female police officer appointed to the Los Angeles Police Department. Although she was not technically the first female officer in the United States, she was the first of female police officers to hold arrest privileges and she was a national trailblazer for getting women allowed on police forces.
Wells worked hard to overcome gender stereotypes and barriers to women working on the police force. At the time, women who worked in law enforcement were only allowed to be matrons overseeing female inmates and juveniles. In May of 1910, Wells drafted a petition and obtained signatures before bringing it to the mayor of Los Angeles, the police commissioner and city council to demand she be appointed as a female police officer. The petition succeeded and she was appointed the following fall.
Paving a Road to a Stronger Force
Her initial months on the job were bumpy. She had to overcome disrespect and confusion with the idea of a woman on the force. One of the usual perks of the job was being allowed to ride the trolley for free. However, she was kicked off the trolley after being accused of wearing her husband’s badge. This was eventually rectified as she was issued a new badge with the title “Policewoman No. 1.”
She also had to deal with derisive newspaper reporting. Article headlines mocked her with titles like “Officerette, Officeress, and first woman policeman.” Instead of bowing down, Wells demanded acceptance and gave an exclusive interview to the Los Angeles Times. There she stated, “This is serious work and I do hope the newspapers will not try to make fun of it.”
Wells continued to campaign for wider inclusion of female police officers across the country. In 1915, she created the International Association of Policewomen. She traveled and gave lectures about the merits of adding female police officers. Wells advocated there were situations where women would be more effective than men in police enforcement. She argued that if female police officers were to go into dance halls, skating rinks, and picture shows, women and children would be less intimidated to ask for help.
Preparing Female Police Officers for a New Role
Since female police officers were not issued guns or batons, Wells instituted nationwide training programs specifically targeting female officer safety. She also founded other organizations, conferences, and training programs for female police officers nationwide.
Wells expanded these self-defense programs for female community members as well. She began lectures and classes at local schools and women’s organizations. She taught women to be feisty and unafraid to defend themselves. One of her favorite lines was “The weapon nature gave a woman was a scream. But in more rural communities where someone might not hear you then it would not be bad to know a few bone-breaking tricks.”
Wells remained on the Los Angeles Police force until 1940. She died in 1957 and her funeral was attended by all the senior police officials in the department. She also had an all female honor guard of 10 officers.
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