LAPD had the Nation’s First Police woman
In 1909, Los Angeles social worker Alice Stebbins Wells petitioned Mayor George Alexander and the City Council, requesting that an ordinance providing for a Los Angeles Policewoman be adopted. Not only was the measure passed, but on September 12, 1910, Mrs. Wells was appointed as the nation’s first female policewoman with arrest powers.
Many California cities had employed women as “matrons” or “workers” since 1890. These employees specialized in the care of female prisoners, and worked in the City and County prisons and other penal institutions.
On the first day of her appointment, Mrs. Wells was furnished with a Gamewell (a telephone call box) key, a book of rules, a first aid book, and a “policeman’s badge.” In those days, an officer was privileged to enjoy free trolley car rides while going to and from work, but when Mrs. Wells displayed her badge, the conductor accused her of misusing her husband’s identity. This was remedied by presenting her with “Policewoman’s Badge Number One.”
Mrs. Wells was 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.”
In 1911, the position of women police officers in Los Angeles was placed under Civil Service control. By October 1912, there were three policewomen and three police matrons in the Department.
Mrs. Wells’ 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.
Three years later, Mrs. Wells 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.
Mrs. Wells 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 post she held until her retirement on November 1, 1940. She had been a policewoman for 30 years.
Alice Stebbins Wells fought for the idea that women, as regular members of municipal police departments, are particularly well-qualified to perform protective and preventive work among juveniles and female criminals. She will be remembered for introducing this new concept into local law enforcement.
Since her appointment, policewomen have been assigned duties in patrol, delinquency prevention, investigation of crimes involving juveniles, and investigation of other cases in which the service of a female officer is deemed necessary.
By 1937, 39 policewomen were employed by this Department. In addition, five “aerial policewomen” were appointed as reserve officers. These specially appointed aerial officers joined a previously all-male squadron of commercial and highly trained amateur pilots who were summoned to duty in situations requiring expert flyers.
Mrs. Wells died in August 1957. Attending her funeral service as pallbearers were Deputy Chief Frank E. Walton, Jr., Inspector K.J. McCauley, Sergeants G.E. Luther and A.R. Bongard and Policewomen Betty J. Munson, and Chloe I. Gilmore. Ten other policewomen in full dress uniform served as the Honor Guard. Interment was in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Los Angeles’ second policewoman, Minnie Barton, befriended several homeless girls while working with young women on parole or probation. Often these girls had nowhere else to go and no prospects for the future, so she attempted to help them rebuild their lives by taking them into her home and offering them vocational training.
In 1917, she founded the “Minnie Barton Home.” In the early years, she and her co-workers were primarily interested in women just released from jail. Often younger women, particularly first offenders, were committed to the Home in lieu of jail sentences.
This “temporary home” facility grew to include care for pregnant women, often left destitute as a result of the father’s jail confinement or abandonment. The Home has since expanded and is now known as The Big Sister League, a United Way agency.