Marie Sadanaga remembers the case that convinced her detective work was her calling. She had accompanied the Los Angeles Police Department’s gang violence unit on a call to help two sisters who had been assaulted by the Southside Reseda gang. All five gang members and the sisters themselves were barely out of high school. Sadanaga knew their youth would make confiding in her especially tough.
“Talking with the two girls, showing them pictures to try and identify their attackers, made me realize why I wanted to do this,” she said.
The girls welcomed Sadanaga’s pleasant demeanor: “I believe my being a woman helped in getting them to open up to me.” The memories of helping them through the court proceedings stand out to her. “They gave me a crystal flower at the end of it all. I was touched but also slightly confused,” she said.“I thought I was just doing my job.”
Sadanaga’s team, composed of five men and two women, arrested all of the suspects. Now, 10 years after that call, she is tackling a new responsibility. She is the head of the domestic violence unit LAPD’s Headquarters in Downtown.
The LAPD has undergone major changes since she joined the force in the early 2000s. In one key area, it still lags: the number of women on the force. Less than one-fifth of the officers are women. Police Chief Michel Moore announced in January that he’d like to see women make up half of the force. The chief set no deadline and many within his own department are skeptical. Breaking this glass ceiling and achieving pay parity is challenging and made more difficult by sexism and racism. A question underlying it all: What difference do women make on a police force? An analysis of arrest data and calls for service suggest that perhaps women officers are better than men at deescalating tense situations and handling domestic violence calls.
Tactically, their handling of daily service and emergency calls make a big difference when it comes to issues like domestic violence or sexual assault. “The victims are usually women and that automatically puts you in a position of empathy,” Sadanaga said. “When I just listen to the victims, they feel that I believe what they’re saying, as opposed to a male cop.”
But even with the disproportionately larger count of men, the department’s arrest data presented a startling picture.
Female officers made almost 23% more arrests for domestic violence than their male counterparts, within their respective gender groups, according to the LAPD’s 2019 arrest data. They made more than a fifth more arrests than male officers in domestic violence cases.
The percentage of domestic violence cases are surging in 2020 due to the safer-at-home order placed to curb the spread of COVID-19. On March 21, two days after California’s Safer at Home order went into effect, the Los Angeles Police Department was deluged with calls about domestic violence.
That day, service calls related to domestic abuse incidents rose by 240% from the daily average of the previous month. Some 244 service calls were made, the most it received so far this year, according to publicly available data. Calls for domestic violence come to the LAPD’s Communications Division through two numbers -- the regular 911 emergency line and also the non-emergency 877-ASK-LAPD hotline that are labeled as “service calls”.
The sudden spike may be an early signal of one of the brutal side effects of staying at home to limit the spread of COVID-19. Victims’ advocates fear that protracted confinement could cause domestic tensions to flare, causing an increase in violence. It is still early to get a clear picture from the data, and experts caution that calls about domestic violence often come days after an actual attack, because victims must first find an opportunity to distance themselves from their abusers.
Cases of domestic violence are often underreported. However, the LAPD’s Sadanaga said that the shutdown for coronavirus has made reporting even more difficult. Though calls have increased, in-person reporting of domestic violence has not, she said, which could be due in part to the fact that front desks at police stations have reduced service.
“Before, we had people come to the front desk of the station to report it, but now that’s closed,” Sadanaga said. “We’re confused how to go about it.”
The detective noted that there can be a lag time — often lasting days — between when abuse happens and when it is reported. That is because victims often live with their abusers and must wait for an opportunity when they are safe enough to report. This is why the number of crime reports in the system is stagnating, even though the cases of violence are growing.
Sadanaga observed an increase in the number of domestic violence-related calls her unit was receiving following the stay-at-home order. “There is more fear right now because the perpetrator is still with the survivor at home.” Sadanaga urged victims who were still sharing the same space with their abusers to text rather than call 911. “If a victim is afraid to call us, they can text to 911 if they need help, but not many people know this,” she said.
She chalked a higher rate of arrests in this category to empathy. “Most of the victims are women. They feel comfortable discussing what has happened with another woman, who in this case, happens to be a female officer,” she said.
On March 28, the LAPD was hit with another spike of 240 calls. A week later, April 4, there were 222 calls. “There have been more calls than ever,” said Sadanaga.“There is more fear right now because the perpetrator is still with the survivor at home.”
Sadanaga is the coordinator of the Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART). Under her care, each LAPD division has a car dedicated to managing domestic violence cases. When calls come in to the Communications Division, it is her responsibility to send out a patrol car with two officers from the nearest division. Once the suspect is taken into custody, a DART vehicle with another officer and a civilian advocate is sent to monitor the situation.
But there is no guarantee that the arresting officer may be a woman. “It’s Communications that handles the actual calls. We send whoever’s available and the closest. I think we should have more women because they bring in a way of doing things that’s different to how males look at things,” said Sadanaga. She said male officers aren’t allowed to pat down a female suspect unless it’s an absolute emergency. If the arresting officer is a man, they will request a female officer to pat down a female suspect.
With the length of the Coronavirus lockdown, victims of domestic abuse are paying the price. It is a crime that is massively underreported due to the danger and stigma facing those who speak out. The Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Data Sources reported that only 17.2% of women report their most recent rape incident to the police. This underscores the need for more women officers on the force.. Addressing the safety issues raised by a large segment of the city’s population b could become a wake-up call for the LAPD to close the gender gap within its ranks.
Women officers play a key role in handling domestic violence calls and the need to hire more may be more pressing than ever in the face of a global pandemic.
The seeming tranquility of the Magic Carpet Motor Inn was broken by the urgent, heavy pounding of a motel door by an LAPD officer. The cop, an imposing figure, blended into the dark blue mass of his nine other male colleagues -- each taller and more muscular than the last one.
The minor battalion gathered outside of an innocuous motel room a few hours before midnight, after receiving a tip of a possible drug sale.
Standing out in this mass of blue was Officer Gloria Velez’s calm and calculating demeanor.
Velez has spent over a year working the gang unit, and has been an LAPD officer for six years. The assignment brought her in constant contact with sex workers and pimps among the usual crowd of gang members. Their current location at South Vermont was a textbook arena for gang activity. Velez’s presence as the only woman in the present blue company of 10 was imperative in deescalating potential conflict.
“I can see that they [the gang members] size me up -- they scan you to see how you look, your height, your build, to see what you’re capable of doing,” she had said. “They’re likely to talk back to me. It depends on the knowledge you have. The more a gang member sees me and figures out I know my stuff -- I know who their girlfriend is, who their mother is -- that’s when they finally back off. Initially when they meet me, some of them rather deal with my partner, who is a man.”
With the LAPD often mired in racial tensions, it's application pool has winnowed in recent years. This problem is being faced by police forces all across the nation. Los Angeles’ cops have higher rates of gender disparity compared to regions like Chicago where 24% of the police department is represented by women. Many members in the department believe that the media attention on the shortcomings of police forces across the country have contributed to the significant hit in reputation and incoming applications.
The gender makeup of the LAPD is not representative of the workforce composition of the people they serve. According to the United States Census Bureau, women comprised almost 60% of LA’s civilian labor force from the years 2014-2018.
“There’s more diversity now, but we obviously lack more women. I do notice that on the field, sometimes there aren’t enough women to do pat downs on other women. Fewer applicants are women as well,” Velez said.
It wasn’t long before the motel door was gingerly opened. Three young black men stepped out while two officers stepped in to scout the room. Amids a frenzied intersection of flashlights, the bedframe was lifted and every square inch of the room analyzed. The raid finally uncovered a small amount of marijuana, two pistols which dated back to the Second World War, and a young woman.
This was Velez’s cue. She stepped in to question the woman, searched her and finally released her after determining she was a bystander. The men did not have the same fate. Two of them were repeat offenders -- one on parole, and the other on probation. The third was a minor. All three were escorted back to the Southeast precinct. At the end of the night, they would be locked up in cells at South Central’s 77th Precinct.
The adrenaline-charged night was over, and the team headed back to the bullpen to complete the longer, unenviable final task: paperwork.
On the trip back to the station, Sgt. Robert Ruiz, the raid’s leader, reflected on the role of the women officers in his team. “We deal with gang members. They don’t like us. They don’t like talking to us. But then they see the females, so they cooperate. They can de-escalate the situation,” he said. “I used to work with a female partner, I would let her do the contact, the talking. Some of the gang members feel safer around them. We use that to our advantage. In fact, sometimes they do better than the male officers.”
Ruiz chalked up the low number of women on the force to fewer applying. The dangers of the job, especially working the gang unit, can discourage many. “It’s not a boys’ club,” he said. Ruiz went on to narrate the importance of having more women in the force: to pat down and detain female suspects. If having women officers can reduce the sting of tense situations, why aren’t there more appointments, especially to the gang unit? Confusion is rife.
“Up to this day, I don’t really know,” he said.
Working as a trauma nurse for the better part of her life convinced Lt. Laura Curtin that she had seen certain horrors of humanity that most police officers don’t witness. “I can’t tell you how many times I was punched. In fact, when I was still a brand-new nurse, I got kicked in the head and knocked out,” she said thoughtfully, while waiting for her precinct’s captain at Los Angeles’ Southeast division.
Conveying life’s tragedies as a nurse to grieving individuals had repeatedly put her in a volatile situation quite unlike the shield of power a badge and a gun could guarantee. Curtin recalls being hit by a lady with a purse one night, after it was revealed to her that her son had been killed in a shooting.
Curtin says she always perceived herself as an adrenaline junkie. It made sense to her to be drawn to the Los Angeles Police Department. At 33, she joined the force through the 1997 graduating class at the academy.
Her captain, Emada Tingirides, joined the force in 1995, at a time when the department was striving to hire more African-Americans in a bid to boost minority representation. Tingirides said that it’s no longer a shock to see a cop be a person of color, but perceptions were different only fifteen years ago. Complexities run deeper on race and gender issues.
Being a woman of color, or a woman who isn’t heteronormative in an organization that not so long ago used to be predominantly white and male, can be a double whammy. But this sizing up isn’t confined to the perimeters of the precinct and police car. It also extends to the streets. The cut runs deeper when it's the cul-de-sacs of their own neighborhood. Accusations of being “race traders” -- the betrayal that comes with the apparent switching of one's race by joining the traditionally white enemy camp of the police force -- are thrown around frequently. It’s something Tingirides is all too familiar with.
“It’s our responsibility as women to identify women (and men) who are hardworking and help them with promotions. Not just them, but also women who are struggling because they don’t feel as confident. We need to seek them out,” said Curtin. In times like this, both the Captain and the Lieutenant believe women should uplift their kind. “That’s how you can change the perception of what women officers are,” Tingirides said.
Deep in the 77th precinct -- where suspects booked by the Southeast division are jailed -- sits Chief Moore’s appointee, Regina Scott. Scott’s rise to the post of the Deputy Chief in 2018 made her the first African American woman to ascend to the title. She is quick to remember and appreciate the efforts of officer Fanchon Blake in the 1970s and 1980s.
Fanchon Blake was a female officer at the LAPD who sued the department for blocking promotions for women beyond the rank of sergeant. What started as a winning lawsuit in 1979 evolved into a consent decree in 1981, which required women to be actively recruited for various positions. The decree, though it was not fully enforced until much later, set the foundation for basic rights for the career-driven policewoman.
Chief Scott was joined in her office by Officer Jessyca Avalos, and both women shared their experiences of juggling the job with motherhood. In numerous cases, women officers either drop out or put their careers on hold to take care of their children. The violent risk that comes with being a cop is sidestepped to continue being present for their loved ones.
Avalos is the mother to 4-year-old Arya. Her mother’s demanding schedule is not lost on her. “My daughter told me she doesn’t want to be a police officer. I told her that’s fine but I asked her why,” says Avalos.
“You have to wake up too early,” her child told her. “I’m up at 3 a.m.,” saysAvalos with a wry smile. When does her day end? She and the Chief announce almost in unison: “Whenever it ends.” Answering the unexpected call of duty sometimes prevents them from going home at allr. Both women vividly remember the moments when they truly felt that police work was their calling. For Scott, it was bringing a neighborhood child molester to justice in the 1990s. A few days before this interview, she was recognized in church by an older man who remembered the incident. “Him thanking me reaffirmed it for me,” she says.
But reaching this epiphany was a more harrowing task for Avalos, and it’s one that still brings her to tears. A pair of red Nike Air Jordans is what has marked the call for her. A 17-year-old boy had jumped from the freeway pass. Avalos and her squad were working to identify him, when her watch commander asked her to go over to the house of a man who had arrived on the scene to report his missing son. “Call it intuition, if you will,” she mentions.
We accessed publicly available data from the City of Los Angeles’ Open Data Portal. We used two sources: overall LAPD crime data, using the code for “intimate partner violence” to identify instances of domestic violence for our overall statistics, and data on service calls relating to domestic violence to identify the number of daily calls related to domestic violence for February and March, 2020. We analyzed the arrest numbers after filing a public records request to the LAPD for their arrest data spanning 2017-2019. Our calculations were dependent on all arrests where the primary arresting officer (“Officer 1”) was male or female.