Linda Witt
October 06, 1980 12:00 PM

Whenever the auto industry slips into recession, police in Detroit brace for an inevitable flare-up of violence among families. It is one of the bench-marks of hard times. In June 1979 officers Bill Yamin and Cynthia Thomas were dispatched to the home of a terrified woman who was being harassed by her ex-husband, James Hampton. The domestic dispute spilled out into the front yard, where the two cops struggled to restrain the man. “Call for backup,” shouted Yamin, but before Thomas could do so she was kicked in the stomach and sent sprawling. “He’s going for my gun,” yelled her partner; Cynthia leaped to her feet and struck the man with her flashlight. Suddenly a shot rang out, and Yamin screamed in pain. Thomas reached for her own gun, but her holster was empty. Another shot. Yamin screamed again. Then Thomas saw her gun on the lawn. “It almost seemed to glow,” she recalls. “Every second seemed like an hour. I raised the barrel to the man’s neck and fired point-blank.” Hampton collapsed and died before reaching the hospital.

Today, nearly 16 months later, Yamin has recovered from his wounds, and Thomas has received numerous awards for bravery. Yet she is haunted by the memory of the man she was forced to kill. “As far as the department was concerned, I had done everything possible before I shot him,” she says. “But it was still a human life. The man has children; I have children. You can’t fight nightmares with citations.” Thomas, 29, continues to see a police psychologist, and has broken up with the man she loved. “He couldn’t accept that I had killed someone,” she explains. “It just blew him away.” Even her father, himself a retired police officer, seemed to have difficulty understanding her feelings. “When I got my department citation, he came to the ceremony,” Thomas remembers. ” ‘You did a good job there, Officer Thomas,’ he said. Then he shook my hand. But I’m his daughter first. Where was my hug?”

The case of Cynthia Thomas symbolizes a profound change in the macho image of U.S. police work. Law enforcement agencies all over the country, usually compelled by court order, are integrating women into their ranks. Nowhere has this trend had more impact than in Detroit. Before economic layoffs reduced figures in both cities, Detroit had nearly 800 women on a force of 5,700 officers, while New York had only 500 women on a force of nearly 24,000. Increasingly, equal opportunity for policewomen has meant not jobs at headquarters shuffling papers but equal risks on night patrol.

The change has not taken place without controversy. Some women officers wonder if the rough and demanding role of the street cop is consistent with a sense of femininity they wish to preserve. Many male cops, in turn, question whether female partners could back them up in a fight. “As investigators, women may be better than men,” says one Detroit homicide detective. “They know how to pry out information, and maybe they have a calming influence. But you can’t talk your way out of everything. There’s just some guys who ain’t going to jail.”

Some Detroit policewomen feel it is this lingering suspicion about their adequacy under fire that led to the dismissal earlier this year of Officers Glenda Rudolph, 27, and Katherine Perkins, 35. The women were discharged on grounds of cowardice after they allegedly failed to aid a male sergeant who was attacked by a deranged man. Both officers denied the charges and were reinstated on appeal, only to be laid off again in the latest round of budget cuts last month. Says Rudolph of the accusations against them, “If we were two men, this never would have happened.” Adds Perkins: “It never entered my mind that I was guilty, and it never entered theirs that I wasn’t.” Despite her size—5’3″ and 130 pounds—Perkins has no doubt of her ability to do the job. “I may not be able to wrestle a 200-pound nut,” she concedes, “but a police officer has to have brains and common sense. I’m a professional, not just a dumb cop.”

Police officers of both sexes agree that the Starsky-and-Hutch image of two-fisted crime busters is absurdly overdrawn. “Most of this job is paperwork and PR—maybe only five percent is physical,” says Officer Doreen Mathis, 29, a college-trained social worker who, in a 1978 shootout, became the first Detroit policewoman to kill in the line of duty. Before the shooting many of the older officers did not fully accept her, Mathis observes. “The night it happened,” she recalls, “the guy who had been hardest on me came by and said, ‘Good work, Officer Mathis.’ Before that he didn’t even want me touching the radio.”

Even now, not all policewomen believe members of their sex should be patrolling the streets. Sgt. Cynthia Eggers, 40, Detroit’s first woman homicide detective, doubts she would have joined the force if it had meant riding in a squad car. She also objects to her husband, a precinct sergeant, going on patrol with a female partner. “He likes being on the street,” she says, “but I think if he was riding with a woman he’d hang back to protect her. And I’m not sure I’d like his riding around with a woman eight hours a day.” Is there any justification for such sexual suspicions? “Half the women in my precinct have had affairs with married male officers,” says one Detroit policewoman. “Most of the women got divorced after they became cops.” “It wouldn’t surprise me if female officers are sexually hyperactive,” admits Executive Deputy Chief James Bannon. “Along with too much drinking and fanaticism about sports, promiscuous sex has long been a hallmark of being a cop. If women officers believe sex is part of fulfilling the macho role, they’ll do it. What we have to do is redefine what being a cop means.”

That may happen, but not overnight. “Any change comes reluctantly,” says Detroit’s crime lab chief Mary Jarrett, 49, a policewoman for 22 years and the first in the city to reach the rank of inspector. “But women do look at crime differently. While investigating a crime, for example, we will notice things about fabric and the placement of furniture that a man won’t. In interviews, a woman will be more sensitive to-the emotions of suspects. And women will absolutely tolerate less abuse of the public. Men will close ranks and protect each other. Women seem to understand better that we are civil servants.” The bottom-line assessment of the city’s women cops comes from Detroit Police Chief William Hart. “Some policewomen are average, some are outstanding, others just don’t make the grade—exactly like men,” he says. Adds Deputy Chief Bannon: “Statistically, the only significant variation is that about 10 percent of the women must be given light duty at any given time. That’s because they happen to be pregnant.”

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