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article / August 10, 2023

Expert panel: women leaders in law enforcement

Women in Police Leadership - Axon Accelerate

These Axon Accelerate panelists are setting an example that will inspire the next generation of women leaders in law enforcement

It’s no secret that law enforcement is a male-dominated field. Research shows that women make up only 12% of officers and 3% of senior leadership roles, but many departments are aiming to increase those numbers. Rethinking how agencies manage recruitment and promotion can help, but showcasing the female law enforcement leaders working in this space is vital.

That’s why it was a privilege to host the 2023 Axon Accelerate panel “Leadership Isn’t Always Ladylike.” This riveting conversation with current and former law enforcement leaders gave the audience fresh insight into women’s career opportunities and challenges at agencies and departments nationwide. You can watch the complete discussion here, but first, let’s introduce the panelists and share a few highlights:

  • Renee Hall: Former Chief of the Dallas Police Department, founder of TUU Enterprises

  • Melissa Zebley: Superintendent of the Delaware State Police, 31-year veteran law enforcement officer

  • Kristen Ziman: Former Chief of the Aurora Police Department, author of Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing

  • Teresa Theetge: Chief of the Cincinnati Police Department, third-generation law enforcement officer and 30-year veteran

Play Video Women in Law Enforcement Leadership

Being the first is extremely difficult

It’s important to remember that our panelists aren’t just female police chiefs and law enforcement leaders. They’re the first women who earned their rank from each department. That’s a significant achievement, but it also means they’re scrutinized in ways their male counterparts wouldn’t be.

“Being the first is going to be extremely difficult. You are going to endure all of the criticism and all of the scrutiny,” Hall said. “When we talk about women in leadership, [there are two things] we never hear when it comes to men. One of those words is ‘incompetent,’ and the other one is ‘over their heads’… We know that we are not incompetent. We are just as capable as our male counterparts, and we give kudos to our male counterparts … but know that we are equally able to achieve those things and that level of success. We’re not in over our heads.”

“You feel the pressure,” Theetge said. “I [feel that I] absolutely have to get it right. I can’t make a mistake, or no woman will come after me because they’ll say I failed because I’m a woman. It’s self-imposed, but as long as you know you’ve got the ability, you’re confident in yourself, you’ll be able to do it. And a woman will be able to come after me.”

Teresa Theetge: Chief of the Cincinnati Police Department

Each leader believes their efforts will make it easier for other women leaders to follow in their footsteps, although that doesn’t make the work less complicated. “The lights are brighter, and the memories can be longer, so you’re casting a shadow forward for all those that come thereafter,” Zebley added. “I am a colonel and a woman, but I am setting a table for a woman who will do this in the future.”

“The truth of the matter is you have to be bigger, stronger, faster, period,” Hall said. “But you can do it. Endure it.”

One key, says Ziman, is being your authentic self.

“Every failure that I have had in my career, I can trace back to trying to be something or someone I wasn’t,” she said. “Making a decision that I thought, ‘This is how I'm supposed to behave or how I'm supposed to think, act, do or feel,’ and I say my career has been a remedial lesson of having to learn the same thing over and over to fail and to finally figure it out. And once I figured it out, it was that authenticity piece. 

Kristen Ziman- Former Chief of the Aurora Police Department

“It is no use trying to compare apples to apples because we're apples and mangoes. We're all different. And so once I started bringing in my skills, my talents, my own ability – bringing my humor into policing and into leadership – I became a more successful patrol officer and went on to become a more successful supervisor and go on to lead the department.”

To gain trust, you have to be transparent

The leaders at this panel led their agencies during some of the most challenging eras of their history, addressing mass shootings, civil unrest, and a global pandemic. Facing each challenge wasn’t easy, but it allowed them to learn about how to lead when there wasn’t a plan or policy a department can fall back on.

Renee Hall Former Chief of the Dallas Police

Hall, who served as Dallas Chief of Police during the city’s George Floyd protests, understands this dynamic all too well. “I want everyone in the room to know that you do not get to a leadership position or stay in a leadership position without some level of failure,” she said. “One of the first things that I did … is own what we did wrong. No one wants to get the scrutiny of [making a mistake], especially at that particular point in time. But it was the only right thing to do in the city of Dallas.

“They had not in the history of the department done an after-action report,” she continued. “So in our after-action report, we documented all of those things that we did right and we highlighted those things that we did wrong. And the community was angry … but the only way that we could do it was to acknowledge it, own it, fix it and move forward. And that’s exactly what we did.”

“I never heard as much in my career as I did that year about officers’ families saying, ‘I don't know that I want you to do this anymore,’” said Zebley. It was important to give those officers a platform, to “take those voices and find space for them, and set a table where we can listen to each other – not in the middle of something contentious, but in a way that looks like something different where we can make progress.”

Melissa Zebley- Superintendent of the Delaware State Police

“To gain trust from the community, you can’t just say you’re going to be transparent,” Theetge added. “You have to show you’re transparent. You have to have conversations with people from the community constantly. You have to know what’s important to them. We have 52 neighborhoods in Cincinnati, and we attend every one of their monthly community meetings. You build that trust over time so that someday when something happens, they know that you have their best interest at heart.”

It’s up to women to break barriers in law enforcement

A surprising theme emerged when panelists were sharing advice for the next generation of law enforcement leaders: Sometimes, the greatest obstacle is self-doubt. “You can be your own barrier,” Hall said. “You see very few women in [law enforcement] spaces. And you question yourself, and you doubt that you can be in that space because the organization or society has defined what the leader of that organization looks like or should be.”

Finding a female mentor is vital for rising leaders to overcome their doubts. Not only does it create career development opportunities, but it shows women they also belong in these spaces.

“Visibility matters so much. I didn’t have any women in my organization above the rank of sergeant,” Ziman explained. “There were unquestionably great male mentors in my career, and they’re the reason that I’ve achieved what I have. But the first time I went to a female-led organization, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are women police chiefs and commanders and lieutenants!’”

That’s precisely why these leaders hope their careers will inspire women to meet and surpass their impressive achievements. “Society has determined a place for women,” Hall said. “It’s up to us to break those barriers. If not us, then who?”

For more on this topic, you can watch the recording of our panel: Leadership Isn’t Always Ladylike: Just Ask These Leaders.