Mounted Metro Police officers, who happen to be women, position themselves in the middle of Fremont Street.
Jen Harney uses a broom and water to clean up sidewalk chalk in front of the Las Vegas police headquarters in Las Vegas Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. A group of people organized by Harney were in front of the headquarters to protest the arrest of three protestors who used sidewalk chalk. Metro has faced its share of controversy this year. Is diversifying the police force a way to build bridges?”
Picture a police officer.
If you’re like most folks, your mind’s eye will conjure up a uniformed man, in a typical hat, wearing a Sam Brown belt. Maybe some aviator-style shades and a mustache.
Kelly McMahill and Sasha Larkin don’t look like that guy. The two women, however, do look a bit like the present and future leadership of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
McMahill has been with the department for 17 years, Larkin for 15 years. They were two of the top three finishers in the recent final examinations for promotion to lieutenant at Metro. All three top finishers were women, and five of the top 10 finishers in the exam were female.
Nobody with half a brain, or who has seen them work in the field, doubts that women can be top cops, but the fact that the female trio took top honors still seems a bellweather of change in the department, both to naive CityLife reporters and to the brass at Metro.
McMahill ranked No. 1 and Larkin was No. 3 on the Lieutenant promotional list. Fifty sergeants applied for this process, 43 took the written exam and began the process, and just 27 successfully completed the entire process.
The domination by women of the exam was “unheard of,” McMahill notes. “I think it shocked a lot of people in this agency. It had never been done before.”
Metro, overall, is still largely the domain of men. Of the commissioned police officers, which does not include civilian or correctional-officer staff, 2,247 are men, 213 women. That is about on a par with the national percentage. USA Today reported in August that women represented nearly 12 percent of about 700,000 police officers in the U.S., according to data submitted to the FBI in 2011.
There now are no women among the top brass, called executive-level staff, but Larkin and McMahill believe that should change soon as women continue to go up the career ladder.
Policing after all these years is in the blood of both McMahill and Larkin, who sat down for a recent interview. McMahill’s husband is a Metro assistant sheriff. She’s advancing in her law-enforcement career while also raising five kids.
Her kids, she notes, “don’t get away with anything.”
Larkin’s husband is a teacher and writer, but is no CityLife couch potato: Lt. Larkin's husband entered but did not graduate the Navy SEAL program due to a blown eardrum. He completed his four-year obligation with Navy Intelligence.
McMahill admits that there are challenges, and that there are always concerns about safety when police officers are in the field. However, her husband, at his rank, is unlikely to see anything dangerous in the field.
“He’s so high up now that he would suffer a paper cut,” McMahill jokes.
McMahill says that she’s aware of the potential for danger - Metro has had 11 officers die in the field in its history - but she says the training has prepared her for unpleasant or violent situations.
“I’ve never felt I was unprepared to do my job,” she says, matter-of-factly. And dangerous situations are rare, McMahill adds: “We’re most social worker than anything else.”
McMahill says she has been in “knock down, drag out fights” in the field, while Larkin has been in several shoot outs. Occupational hazards, to be sure, but not one’s that you usually associate with young moms.
McMahill says one of the biggest dangers for police on patrol is that they are in automobiles, in Las Vegas traffic, for 10 hours a day. She’s had three neck surgeries. But she has no illusions about the nature of the job.
“The inherent danger is that we go out there every day. To people who don’t like us, we are a moving target.”
McMahill says that there are a few areas where men and women serving in the ranks are segregated - but both sexes are held to the same standard in the police academy and in service. They both wear nearly the same uniform. (The trivial difference is that shirt buttons are on the left for men, right for women.)
That wasn’t always the case. At Metro’s headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there is a modest museum describing the Las Vegas Police and Clark County Sheriff’s Department, the two agencies that merged in 1973 to create Metro.
Female officers, forty years ago, were expected to wear skirts and carry a purse, into which their sidearm and handcuffs were demurely tucked.
Both McMahill and Larkin are obviously partisan supporters of Metro, which has come through a hell of a year. A sales-tax increase to support Clark County law enforcement (and the bulk of which would go to Metro), a year ago supported by the Clark County Commission, failed to win the required majority vote in the same commission last fall.
The department and the District Attorney’s Office took a beating for its widely publicized and just as widely ridiculed prosecution of protesters who used washable chalk to express their disappointment with police outside the headquarters. And issues and incidents involving the use of deadly force continue to hang over the department, despite its participation in a U.S. Department of Justice program meant to overhaul policies.
Clearly, the spotlight on the success of female officers in its promotion process is an effort by Metro to improve its public image. But just as clearly, the success of the women in the program speaks to an egalitarian process that belies the image of a violently masculine department.
Larkin described her days in training, a time when she wanted to be just as tough as her male counterparts. She said one of her trainers, a woman, reminded her that she didn’t have to be a man, and would never be a man, no matter how hard she tried.
Larkin says she struggled with what that meant. “How will I operate, not being a man, in this world?” she says she wondered. “I was going to do everything they did.”
Larkin says that she realized one of her major goals, to emulate the experience of her trainers, when she was accepted into Metro’s field-training program. Most of the mentors she had as an officer, she says, were men, but more women are now in the program and rising the ranks with her peer group.
She says she also is proud of her work setting up anti-terrorism programs after the 9-11 attacks, incidents that fundamentally “changed the way we did business.” Larkin says her work took her to mosques and churches, to first responders of all kinds in Nevada and around the country, and now the Las Vegas program is “a national standard.”
McMahill also refers to one of her favorite assignments, a multi-year posting with internal affairs, the office within the department responsible for policing the police. In the world of cop shows on TV, the officers with internal affairs are usually portrayed in very negative lights.
“I love that unit,” McMahill says. Holding officers accountable - “That is a cornerstone of the public trust.”
The two lieutenants agree that race, gender and sexual orientation are not issues in the hiring and advancement of officers at Metro. Others might disagree, but the two appear to be sincere advocates for the department, and believe in the fundamental fairness of the process.
McMahill says she would like to see more minorities and women among recruits to the police department because, over time, those recruits will be the mid-level and finally top-level officers.
The women, and men, who seek promotions face a difficult process. For McMahill and Larkin, that included three months of rigorous, everyday study, and a daunting management review by a board of captains and deputy chiefs. Larkin has some advice for people who take the test: “Never take no for an answer. Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do.”
McMahill, the oldest of four girls in her family, credits her parents with giving her similar advice, years ago: “My parents never said there was something I couldn’t do,” she recalls.
And she added her endorsement of the police department: “I love being a leader in this agency. I love being a female officer in this agency. I do feel a little bit of responsibility as a female… I believe this profession became bigger and better when women were allowed to participate fully. We bring something different.”
Observers say that the rise of female officers in Metro and in law enforcement is inevitable.
It is “not surprising to me,” says Randall Shelden, who teaches Criminal Justice at UNLV. “In my department the majority of majors have been women for several years. For two years in a row all of our graduate assistants have been female and this year we finally got one male. Also many studies have shown that women perform better than men in most tasks, especially in situations requiring verbal skills and the need for something other than the typical ‘macho’ response.”
William Sousa, who teaches in the same department, says the barriers to women in law enforcement are falling.
“Women have traditionally faced barriers in policing in terms of recruitment, retention, and promotion,” Sousa says. “Much of this is changing, although policing remains male dominated. Research suggests that women are no less effective as street officers (and, in some cases, can be more effective) - and are equally effective as police managers.
“Agencies are recognizing this and are putting in place methods to encourage women to join police departments and, once in, to promote to higher ranks or to special assignments.”
Larkin considers for a moment what makes female and male officers different, professionally, even as they do the same job and are held to the same standard. She suggests that there is a subtle but real difference the women contribute to policing.
“Children…” she pauses. “When you have somebody else, your perspective shifts.” CL