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Behind the Badge | The push to get more women into law enforcement

Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, yet the latest statistics show they represent only 12% of state and local law enforcement nationwide.

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Victoria Walton has been a first responder since the age of 14.

"It’s all that I know, it’s all that I’ve done," she said.

From running with her local fire department and EMS to now working as a patrol officer for the Pequea Township Police Department—and she’s only 29.

While police departments across Lancaster County, and Pennsylvania, are taking steps to hire more women, it’s still pretty rare to see them on patrol.

The latest data from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Bureau of Criminal Justice show women make up 51 percent of our country’s population, but only 12 percent of state and local law enforcement nationwide.

Here in the Commonwealth, that number drops to between seven and nine percent.

Officer Walton said there are still days where her gender is a barrier.

"There is that rare occurrence where someone doesn’t want to comply with you because you’re a female," said Officer Walton. "They’ll say ‘Well I want to talk to another officer, I want to talk to a supervisor.'"

Those in law enforcement explain there are exponential benefits to having more women in the field.

"It’s very important, not only for safety reasons for female searches and stuff like that, but women statistically have better de-escalation skills," said Officer Walton.

Officers who spoke with FOX43 said that's something that is more important than ever, as police use of force takes center stage across America.

"Females naturally can bring a little bit more on occasion defusion to calls, calmer demeanor but sometimes it’s all about that initial contact with somebody and who they’re more comfortable speaking with," said Jen Brubaker, chief of the East Hempfield Township Police Department.

"Many times community members can see them as more approachable and that’s incredibly important when we’re talking about investigations involving children and domestic violence victims as well," said Heather Adams, Lancaster County's district attorney.

Adams is the first woman to hold the position of Lancaster County’s top prosecutor.

“I think I speak for many women who break that glass ceiling—it’s no different than any other job—we roll up our sleeves, we get to work, and we get the job done," she said.

Around the same time Adams was hired, West Hempfield Township swore in the county’s first female police chief, Lisa Layden.

"It means a lot to me to be shaping the future of not just West Hempfield Township, but hopefully the future of policing a little bit," said Chief Layden.

West Hempfield is one of several Lancaster County departments, and more than 250 nationwide, that have joined the national 30x30 Initiative.

30x30 aims to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30 percent by 2030.

"The reality is policing is a profession that was built by and for men," said Maureen McGough, co-founder of the 30x30 initiative, "We’re not saying they’re intentionally trying to keep women out. It’s just that the status quo doesn’t contemplate the unique needs of women officers.”

McGough says those needs include protective vests that fit properly and new mothers being able to safely and properly breastfeed after returning to work.

"So you’ve got women on shifts looking for the darkest alley they can find, removing their personal protective equipment and pumping to create food for their kid in their cruiser," explained McGough.

She added that the 30x30 initiative isn't just about hiring more women.

"We never go out and say ‘Recruit a bunch of women.' We never say ‘Hire a bunch of women,'" she explained. "We say 'Start getting accurate about the knowledge, skills and abilities of being a fair and effective police officer and what it takes to do the job and when you do that, you will naturally see an increase in representation of women in the ranks.'"

McGough also stresses the importance of breaking down barriers in the police application process and expanding candidate pools to other fields that may be seen as non-traditional.

"Your educators, your social workers, your psychologists, even your nurses, these are all really great pools of people that have those skills who maybe just never thought what they had is what policing needed," said McGough.

"Many women maybe don’t think about policing as a career field or think seriously about it until they see another woman doing the job," added Chief Layden.

For Officer Walton, as work to increase female representation continues nationwide, she works to do her part inspiring other young girls to follow in her footsteps.

"It doesn’t matter where you live or what your background is or what your goal is—If you’re interested in police work, figure out the process, figure out what you need to do, and know that you can do it," said Officer Walton.

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