In 1909, seasoned Los Angeles social worker Alice Stebbins Wells (b. June 13, 1873) petitioned Mayor George Alexander and the City Council to adopt an ordinance providing for a Los Angeles Policewoman. According to one historian, she argued that society was changing, and reasoned that “children and abused and sexually assaulted women needed a female police officer to confide in; most women, she pointed out, were extremely uncomfortable in reporting crimes to male officers.”
Not only was her measure passed, but on September 12, 1910, Alice, then 37 years old, was appointed as the first woman police officer with arrest powers in the U.S. (women had been employed by law enforcement agencies since 1891, but only for the care of female prisoners). She was given a telephone call box key, a rule book, a first aid book, and a “policeman’s badge.”
In those days, officers enjoyed the perk of getting free trolley car rides to and from work. But when Alice proudly flashed her shiny, new badge, the conductor accused her of misusing her husband’s identity. The police department remedied this by presenting her with “Policewoman’s Badge Number One.”
Alice was initially assigned to work with Officer Leo W. Marden, the Department’s first juvenile officer. Subsequent to her appointment, the following order was issued:
“No young girl can be questioned by a male officer. Such work is delegated solely to policewomen, who, by their womanly sympathy and intuition, are able to gain the confidence of their younger sisters.”
Her first duties included supervision and enforcement of laws concerning “dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades, picture shows, and other similar places of public recreation.” Among her activities were the “suppression of unwholesome billboard displays, searches for missing persons, and the maintenance of a general information bureau for women seeking advice on matters within the scope of police departments.”
“This is serious work and I do hope the newspapers will not try to make fun of it. I think police work is a great work.” – Alice Stebbins Wells
Alice’s appointment prompted nationwide publicity, and by 1916, her efforts in promoting the need for female officers resulted in the hiring of policewomen in 16 other cities and in several foreign countries. She was also instrumental in organizing the International Policewomen’s Association in 1915, and later the Women Peace Officers Association of California.
Three years later, Alice succeeded in persuading the University of California, Southern Division (now UCLA) to offer the first course specifically on the work of women police officers. The course was introduced by the school’s Criminology Department in the summer session in 1918.
Alice was named the first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California in 1928, a group she helped to create. In July 1934, she was appointed the Los Angeles Police Department historian, a position she held until her retirement on November 1, 1940, after 30 years of service.
This pioneering policewoman died August 17, 1957.
Source: Los Angeles Police Department
But Was Alice Really First?
For almost a century, the LAPD’s Alice Stebbins Wells was always considered the first policewoman with arrest powers in the United States… even the National Women’s History Project credits her as such. However, bad record keeping mixed with modern research techniques have recently challenged this assumption, uncovering two other women who are now contenders for the same title. Another problematic factor contributing to the discrepancy, which the site Guardians of Angels points out is, “defining what constitutes being a sworn female police officer.”
Marie Owens – According to the Chicago Sun-Times, “The official record assumed that Chicago’s first female police officer was hired in 1913 – five years after one was hired in Portland, Oregon [Lola Baldwin] and three years after Los Angeles hired one [Alice Stebbins Wells].” It’s now believed that Owens was hired in 1891 – 22 years earlier than previously assumed. The reason for this is that police records were unclear, “apparently because Owens was confused with another woman with the same last name who was a patrolman’s widow.”
Here’s the sticking point… while Marie was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star, her duties were limited to just child labor law violations.
Lola Baldwin – She is said to have been sworn in as a “female detective to perform police service” for the city of Portland, Oregon on April 1, 1908.
Here’s the sticking point… Lola’s duties emphasized crime prevention and social work rather than law enforcement. She did not carry a gun or wear a uniform, and as such, we can only assume she did not have arrest powers. Her office was not in police headquarters, but at the local YMCA.
Our conclusion… while Alice’s contributions to law enforcement extended well beyond her immediate department and had ripple effects throughout the country, all three of these women clearly deserve recognition for their pioneering careers in the police department as they each played a role in paving the way for countless other women to join the ranks.