As an ode to Black History Month, the Office of Africana Studies hosted an informative and influential event in the Miron Student Center Little Theatre Tuesday, Feb. 13. Carol Russell, a retired police sergeant who served the Trenton Police Department, spoke about the struggles of minority and African-American female police officers in an environment dominated by the male and Caucasian majority. This presentation, given to the audience with a vivid PowerPoint shown on the stage of the Little Theatre, made the audience members feel what it is like being in the force as a woman of color.
A lone table covered by a traditional African drapery resided in the long white hallway inside of the Miron Student Center and next to the Little Theatre. Alongside the table, members from the Office of Africana Studies waited for and greeted students that traveled by, anticipating the moments that students, faculty and other members of the Kean community showed interest as they entered the confines of the the Little Theatre.
As the theatre doors closed, the presentation opened with a song called Conqueror from the popular television show Empire, as it created a foreshadowing for the audience into what they could expect from this discussion. Immediately after, the former sergeant played a seemingly disturbing walkie-talkie of a policewoman on duty who lost her life while protecting her community. A silence fell upon the room and Russell then explained her reasoning for placing the audio clip, citing that people in the audience must understand how dangerous being a police officer really is.
Soon after, Russell went into detail about the first woman to serve in the police force, a woman by the name of Alice Stebbins Wells whose historic achievement was met in 1910. Russell then explained the process of integration of African-American officers at the time, and how the first African-American female police officer was sworn in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1916.
However, the discrimination and prejudice that has followed minority police officers signified that equality in that workforce is not quite achieved just yet.
“Today, throughout law enforcement, black women have assumed positions as officers, instructors, chief executives, and special agents,” Russell said. “Yet, minority groups still remain underrepresented in varying degrees and in nearly all local law enforcement agencies.”
The presentation continued and the former police sergeant spoke about the advantages of female policing, stating venerable qualities that they possess when it came down to integral moments of crisis, including good communication skills and a sense of empathy. These skills can come in handy even though, as Russell proclaimed, most women are physically unable to perform the same tasks as men in the field of combat.
“Having females recruited into police departments, if needed, changes recruiting, and our policies can have a dramatic impact of increasing the number of women in police departments,” Russell said, “Police leadership must place the recruitment of females as a high priority. There is a need for more specific directors placed on police departments to recruit and hire more women who mirror the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities."
As the presentation progressed, the former officer revealed the daily difficulties that minority women face every day that they put on their uniforms. Regardless of what force women serve in, the discrimination and mistreatment by fellow officers have substantially impacted their abilities to do their jobs. Additionally, other factors, such as a lack of representation, the feeling of being ostracized from one’s own culture due to their occupation, a vulnerability to the disparaging remarks, and actions by coworkers play a huge part in minority women being an influential part of the police force.
As the speech by the former police sergeant came to a close, Russell then took questions from the audience members that ranged in variety. Questions about the verbal and emotional abuse that a strong majority of minority policewomen undergo while wearing the badge, and inquiries about Russell’s personal experiences in the force and what she was subjected to while serving were asked as well.
Members of the audience left satisfied and informed about the many difficulties women of color go through just to serve their communities. Annabelle Mazagwu, a senior majoring in public relations, felt that this event was informative in speaking about the systemic issues that happen within the police force itself.
”I liked how this event covered the issue of what African-American women go through, especially with the power dynamics and harassment that happens,” Mazagwu said. “I also learned that, unfortunately, there are people of color who are forced to implement harassment and violence upon their own communities. This program was very informative.”
The former sergeant believed events like this helped to contribute to the ongoing conversation about law enforcement in America today, as she gave her side of the story while seeing the audience respect her take on the police force.
“There should be more education about policing as a whole. I just gave a small portion of this issue, but there is a great need for [black women in the police force]” Russell said. “There needs to be more of us, and there needs to be more of an attention on recruiting us.”
To find out more about the Office of Africana Studies and what they have planned later this month to honor Black History Month, their office is in Hutchinson Hall, Room J-103. They can also be reached at their phone number of (908) 737-3915.