The shiny black Ford Explorer with tinted windows rolls up on a narrow block in Ellwood Park, a place known for drug dealers, where shootings have hit hard lately. Residents frequently scatter at the sight of an unmarked police vehicle. But this spring day, the Southeastern District's first African American female commander steps out of the SUV with a sure step and a smile. And rather than clearing the corners, Maj. Tomecha S. Brown calls out to the men carrying groceries, and the teenagers hanging out, who are all starting to disappear. "Why is everybody leaving?"
This is a familiar world for Brown, who grew up in a now-vacant, boarded-up rowhome in nearby McElderry Park. Her friendly approach calms the remaining residents on the street. One woman and her school-age daughter hug Brown. The girl has asked the commander to be her mentor. Later, a young man offers Brown a bit of his chicken box, and on a nearby corner Brown winds up chatting with several young men.
Brown is among four female officers who have risen through the mostly male Baltimore Police Department and are making an impact on the streets as commanders at a time when the troubled force is looking to recruit more women.
Baltimore and other cities around the country see female officers as key to any police reform. The department wants to attract candidates who view themselves not as warriors, but as protectors of the community. As part of a new hiring campaign, the department has set a goal that at least a third of all new officers be women. Images of SWAT teams and roaring helicopters have been swapped for officers posing with cute kids wearing police hats.
Past analyses have shown that not only are women just as competent as men at police work, but women also bring added skills to the job. Studies have found that women are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations with civilians, and they are often better at communicating and developing trust with citizens. Female officers can also be more effective at responding to domestic violence calls, studies have shown.
Baltimore's recent history makes it prime territory for this strategy. After years of zero-tolerance policing, a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that Baltimore officers regularly violated residents' civil rights. More recently, several corrupt officers were sent to prison as members of a squad of rogue plainclothes officers who conducted illegal searches and stole from civilians. While the DOJ report does not specifically call for more female recruits, the city is now under a consent decree that mandates sweeping reforms to rebuild the community's trust in its officers.
"Our department, like any department, should have a level of diversity that is reflective of our community," Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. "The department is clearly moving in the right direction now … but we still have a long way to go."
The proportion of women in law enforcement nationwide has remained stubbornly small, and Baltimore is no exception. Of the department's nearly 2,500 sworn officers, less than 400, or 16 percent, are women. Harrison's command staff of about 30 uniformed officers includes only 10 women: nine majors and one lieutenant colonel. Harrison on Tuesday named Michelle Wilson, a civilian, to oversee the public integrity bureau, making her the highest-ranking woman in the department, and the first African American woman to serve as a deputy commission, but the offer was later withdrawn.
As district commanders, Brown of the Southeast, Maj. Natalie Preston of the Northeastern District, Maj. Monique Brown of the Southern and Maj. Ettice Brickus of the Northwestern are in charge of deployment. They and officers under their command are the department's face to the community.
When an 11-year-old boy and his mother were shot last month on a Cherry Hill playground in the Southern District, Monique Brown visited the community twice in two days. She first went to the scene and later attended a vigil.
"For me, anytime any of you all get hurt, I'm sad," Brown said to the boy's classmates from Cherry Hill Elementary. "[The police are] not always the bad guy. I know sometimes it don't look pretty when we have to do things because of incidents like this, but we have to be there. Just know that we are behind you."
Brown, who grew up in East Baltimore, remembers standing on the corner because there was nowhere else to go. But the officers she met on the street back then didn't see who she really was. They wanted to know what she was doing, not how she was doing. "They looked at all of us to be bad," she said.
When she started as a patrol officer in the Southwest District, she wanted to change that. Patrolling through Edmondson Village, she recalls, her colleagues were surprised to find her chatting up neighbors and kids.
"My side partners would be like, 'Why are you talking to them?'" she said. "And I would be like, 'Why aren't you talking to them?'"
She continued to rise through the ranks, working a variety of assignments including district-level internal affairs, the warrant apprehension task force and domestic violence cases.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, who chaired the council's public safety committee, said he would like to see more women and minorities in the department to better reflect the city's residents. One day he hopes to see a female commissioner, as has happened in departments such as Seattle, Washington, D.C., and recently Baltimore County.
But Scott said he's pleased to see more diversity in the command staff.
In a city where the majority of the more than 300 homicide victims each year are young black men, the fact that several of the commanders grew up in the city and are parents of young black men gives the department's leadership a different perspective.
A 2003 study by the National Center for Women & Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation, found that female officers rely "more on communication than physical force." Better communicators are better able to de-escalate a situation, reducing use of force and improving cooperation from the community.
In addition, women are bringing their own ways of supervising to the mostly male force.
In the Northwestern District, Brickus, who commands more than 100 officers, has a placard on her desk that reads "I'm not bossy, I am the boss." And under her desk, she keeps a box of greeting cards. A monthly calendar keeps track of all the officers' birthdays. She makes sure to recognize each.
"I just want people to know I appreciate them. That's a girl thing to do, though," she said with a laugh.
But Brickus, who commands one of the larger districts with its share of violence, is demanding of those same officers.
At a recent precinct meeting with a captain and several shift supervisors — all men — Brickus told her supervisors not to hold back on performance reviews.
"We cannot enable people," she said. "If it's a training issue, then we are going to give them what they need."
Councilman Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, whose district overlaps with Brickus' Northwestern District, said he's been impressed. "It's an art to be able to handle those situations with grace," he said. "She's very fair and a reasonable person, and she gets things done."
Women have served on the city force since 1912, and decades ago they ditched the rank of "policewoman," and the requirement to dress "ladylike" and wear white "boat" caps. The first female district commander, Maj. Bessie Norris, was named in 1983.
But many women were denied the opportunities their male counterparts had. For years, women were not issued service weapons and were often relegated to support roles, working with teenagers, serving as crossing guards or performing secretarial duties.
The Vanguard Justice Society sued the department in 1973 on behalf of women and minorities who said they were discriminated against by the department's height and weight requirements. At the time, Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau was quoted characterizing women as "little balls of fluff." The department later agreed to revisions in hiring practices and promotional exams, according to Baltimore Sun articles.
During that time, many departments nationwide increased the number of female officers, but the growth has leveled off in recent decades.
Today, around the country, lawsuits continue to allege that women receive unfair treatment when it comes to promotional opportunities or physical fitness tests and instances when pregnant officers are not given the option of light duty.
But even basic information about the number of female officers nationally has not been tallied since 2013, said Kym Craven, executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives. That 2013 survey found women make up only about 13 percent of officers in the country.
"We still don't have equal opportunities," she said.
When Brickus first started with the department in 2001, she said, her class had many women. She didn't look at herself differently from her male colleagues. She just wanted to be a cop, not a "female cop."
But after a while, she couldn't easily shake off some incidents.
One evening, she was supposed to fill in as a temporary shift commander. But because of a hostage situation, she said, she was taken off as supervisor and the job was given to a man that night.
"I did start to feel like I was being treated differently because I was a woman," she said.
When it came to important decisions on issues of crime or deployment, female officers were often ignored or left out of the loop. "It was not something that was outright said," Brickus remembered, "but I could tell."
Some physical tests have also been a barrier.
After several years in patrol, Tomecha Brown wanted to apply for a K-9 job, a unit that is almost exclusively men.
As part of the test, she donned a heavy, protective suit and endured a dog attack.
"I had to put this big suit on. It stinks. It smells like men. It stank so bad," she said, laughing. The test also required carrying weight to simulate carrying her dog if it got injured.
Those sorts of skill tests have at times made it harder for women, as well as the lingering "old school" mindset that men make better police officers, said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has researched hiring and retaining female police officers. But she said, "force and strength does not correlate to good policing."
Baltimore started a program, called Fit to Serve, to coach women and prepare them for the physical fitness requirements. Spillar said such requirements are unnecessary.
"Instead of testing upper body strength," Spillar said, "the focus should be critical thinking and communication skills." She also noted that many departments — Baltimore is one — do not require officers to complete annual physical tests to maintain employment.
Brown did get assigned to the K-9 unit.
"I went in there and I showed up all those guys," she said.
She later worked in homicide, supervising a squad of male detectives on her way to becoming major.
To recruit more women, advocates say, departments need to start looking beyond criminal justice majors, to sociology and nursing students. Leaders also need to take steps to retain women, like letting female officers who have young children share a shift — because women still carry a heavier burden at home. More training and development would keep more women on the job.
Baltimore's team of female commanders have found support in the women who came before them. That informal mentoring has been crucial. Some meet outside work for coffee or drinks, to share stories and advice.
In her office, Monique Brown keeps a picture of stiletto heels and handcuffs that says "Women in Law Enforcement," from a "paint night" outing with other female cops. She wants to bring in all the women she can. She has two female lieutenants and four sergeants.
"We have a great girl power team here," she said.
Brickus also wants to set an example for the next generation of women. "We have seen it change, and we're proof that has improved," Brickus said.
She's seeing how that example-setting pays off. Her daughter, a recent college graduate with a degree in movement science, is training in the academy now. If all goes well, she should hit the streets this summer.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.