Women still are vastly underrepresented at the top ranks of law enforcement.
But not here.
Across the capital's crowded public safety landscape, women are directing the operations of six major institutions in federal and local government.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Park Police, the FBI's Washington Field Office and Amtrak Police Department, the far-flung agency that protects the nation's railroad system, all are headed by women.
"I've never spent a lot of time thinking about my gender," Amtrak Chief Polly Hanson said, "but I don't think there has been a situation quite like this — nothing like this."
"Unprecedented," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based law enforcement think tank. "This didn't just happen. These are all career people and the products of a real push that began 25 years ago. It's a turning point in the profession."
For the Secret Service and the FBI's Washington Field Office — the bureau's second-largest division — this year's appointments of Julia Pierson at the Secret Service and Valerie Parlave at the FBI were groundbreaking moments. Neither office had ever been directed by a woman.
Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation whose programs include the National Center For Women & Policing, said the convergence of women in D.C. law enforcement positions is "revolutionary." Yet, she said, the development is shadowed by the lagging overall numbers of women in the ranks, especially in leadership positions.
Women represented nearly 12% of about 700,000 police officers in the U.S., according to data submitted to the FBI in 2011. That number is up only slightly from 11.2% in 2001.
The FBI's annual report does not track gender breakdowns for police command positions, but the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives reported that at last count, there were just 219 women holding chiefs' jobs in the U.S., where there are now more than 14,000 police agencies.
Roe Manghisi, the association's executive director, said the group is in the midst of a study on the status of women that is being conducted with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"We want good, accurate numbers that we can use to identify mentors and other programs that can be helpful for women just embarking on law enforcement careers," Manghisi said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, confirmed to that post in 2007, said the few women officers in the ranks and in leadership positions — beyond Washington — is noticeable.
"There is a segment of the population that still is watching, waiting and hoping that we don't do well," Lanier said. At that the same time, she said, there have been "huge accomplishments" in the past 40 years, when departments were just allowing women to join men in police patrol cars.
In her own department, Lanier said, women represent 22% of the force.
"Women (officers) are paying attention to what's happening" at the top ranks, Lanier said. "And I think, overall, people are starting to appreciate these changes."
The other two women heading agencies in Washington are Michele Leonhart at the Drug Enforcement Administration and Teresa Chambers at the U.S. Park Police.
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