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The Early Years of American Law

America's First Policewoman

Through the 1800s as professional police departments grew around the nation, women held few positions. Mostly women served as prison workers taking care of female inmates. Then in 1909 social worker Alice Stebbins Wells (1873–1957) pressed Los Angeles to establish a new city ordinance allowing female policewomen. With the support of some influential people, the ordinance was quickly adopted and on September 12, 1910, Wells became the nation's first female policewoman with arrest powers. She received a badge, a key to telephone call boxes, a rule book, and a first aid book. Wells even designed and made some of her own tailored uniforms.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) assigned Wells to patrol public recreation places where women and children frequented, such as skating rinks, dance halls, and movie theaters. By October 1912 two other women were added to the staff. By 1916 sixteen other U.S. cities and several foreign countries had hired policewomen. By 1937 the LAPD employed thirty-nine policewomen and their duties expanded to criminal investigations in addition to patrol.

Pressing onward, Wells helped organize the International Policewoman's Association in 1915 and founded the Women's Peace Officers Association of California in 1928. In 1918 Wells was instrumental in the first college class being offered on the work of policewomen for new and prospective recruits in the UCLA Criminology Department. Wells retired in November 1940 after thirty years on the police force.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System