Wells, Alice Stebbins (1873–1957)
Wells, Alice Stebbins (1873–1957)
First woman police officer in the United States. Born in 1873 in Kansas; died in 1957; attended public schools in Kansas; attended Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut.
Sworn in with full powers of arrest in Los Angeles, California (September 12, 1910); lectured throughout the U.S. on the benefits of women police officers (1910s); retired (1940).
Alice Stebbins Wells' religious background influenced her career path, which led her to become the first woman police officer in the United States and possibly in the world. Born in 1873 and raised in Kansas, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, after high school. She then became an assistant to a local Congregational minister and took up religious studies of her own at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. After two years of study, Wells launched her own ministry, traveling across the country and giving lectures on Christian topics. She even earned her own pastorates in Maine and Oklahoma—the first woman to do so in those states—before settling in California.
At this point, Wells combined her Christian principles with an interest in prison reform. She decided that she could be most effective as an actual police officer, and applied for a job on the Los Angeles police force. Although there were no women officers in the city, Wells appealed to prominent citizens for support, and the city responded to the 100 signatures she collected by agreeing to let her join the force.
On September 12, 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was sworn in as the first woman police officer with full powers of arrest in Los Angeles, California, and in the United States as a whole. She carried no weapon, but otherwise had the same authority to make arrests as did male officers. The novelty of a woman police officer forced Wells into proving to the public that she was, indeed, an officer. She had the most difficulty with streetcar conductors who often accused her of using what they supposed to be her husband's badge to get free rides. To solve the problem, the department issued her a badge that read "Police Woman's Badge No. 1," in large clear letters, and Wells designed a "feminine" yet official-looking uniform to wear. Her initial duties were to facilitate the "suppression of unwholesome billboard displays" and enforce laws regarding "dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades, picture shows" and other public recreational establishments.
By 1914, there were four more women serving as police officers in Los Angeles. When the police department issued a policy that male police officers could not question young women, policewomen were assigned the task. (It was thought that a policewoman's sympathy and intuition would help gain the confidence of those being questioned.) Women police officers also worked on cases involving abandoned women. With her status as the first female officer in America, Wells worked toward educating other police departments across the country about the significant role of women in law enforcement. In 1914, she spoke on the subject to the Consumers' League in New York City and to the New York State legislature. Shortly thereafter, a bill was passed without opposition allowing ten women to be placed on the New York City police force. By 1916, the year Wells established the International Association of Policewomen, 17 U.S. cities had women police officers. She continued to contribute to the expansion of women in law enforcement by founding the first police training program for women, at the University of California in Los Angeles. Wells retired from the Los Angeles police department on November 1, 1940.
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Susan J. Walton , freelance writer, Berea, Ohio