The Santa Ana Police Department is Orange County’s first law enforcement agency to join a nationwide pledge to have 30 percent of its sworn officers be female by 2030.
Santa Ana Police Department’s recent commitment to the 30X30 Initiative to advance women in policing is significant historically and numerically, officials say, because the department’s existing 34 female officers make up less than 10 percent of the 355-member force.
Nationwide, says Santa Ana Police Sgt. Maria Lopez, just 12 percent of sworn officers are female, and just 3 percent are in leadership roles.
The 30×30 Initiative, founded in 2018 by former Newark police chief Yvonne Roman, is a coalition of police leaders, researchers, and professional organizations that have joined together to advance the representation and experiences of women in policing agencies across the United States.
The effort is built on decades of social science research that shows the unique benefits female officers bring to policing agencies, according to the organization’s website. Police Chief David Valentin brought the initiative to his staff’s attention in 2022.
Commander Rosa Ponce de Leon, Santa Ana Police Department’s highest-ranking female officer, believes more women on the force will improve the department.
“Everyone in this industry is facing the challenge of recruiting and retaining male and female officers, so the timing is notable,” Ponce de Leon says.
Ponce de Leon says she believes significant cultural attitudes are responsible for the low numbers of women who apply to work in policing.
“Most young boys see superhero characters and see themselves in that role,” she says. “But most women don’t see themselves as superheroes.”
“In reality, most heroes are normal people doing amazing things,” she adds. “We haven’t done a good job in law enforcement of describing these careers for normal people who want to serve their community and want honorable professions in public service.”
The under-representation of women in policing undermines public safety, the 30X30 Initiative explains.
“Research shows women officers use less force and less excessive force; are named in fewer complaints and lawsuits; are perceived by communities as being more honest and compassionate; see better outcomes for crime victims, especially in sexual assault cases; and make fewer discretionary arrests,” the 30X30 Initiative states.
In Santa Ana, Orange County’s most-populated city, serving as a police officer means working in a multicultural environment, responding to gang, homicide, and other crisis calls, Lopez says.
“It requires grit,” she explains. “We see so much in Santa Ana. We need someone who can overcome challenges and is willing to grow.”
Santa Ana Police Department’s vow to hire and promote women takes aim in three ways: education, recruitment, and retention, Lopez notes.
“It’s a long-term commitment,” she observes. “We intend to go to local high schools to reach females who aren’t of age yet, to answer questions and get them interested in law enforcement careers.”
At age 14, both males and females can volunteer for the department’s Explorer program, giving them firsthand experience.
In terms of recruitment, Lopez adds that Santa Ana Police Department held a first-ever hiring expo aimed at potential female officers in October 2022. The department also developed a recruitment team whose members maintain dialogue with potential recruits. In addition, Santa Ana Police Department held an intensive weekend event designed to offer tips to women who want to pass the department agility test as a step toward hiring.
“We are not just recruiting women,” Lopez explains, “but we want to get qualified females into leadership roles. Women must see a future for their careers.”
Many opportunities are available for women who want to advance in their policing careers, she notes, including working as a detective; on the SWAT team; on the motorcycle or mounted teams; in the homicide, special crimes, traffic, and robbery units; or serving on the K9 patrol, in the gang or vice units, and working undercover.
Ponce de Leon points out that most calls for police assistance have nothing to do with force.
“People call us in times of mental illness or distress, or dysfunction in their homes,” she says. “We bring stability to the scenario; we’re there to prevent a crime from happening.”
Women officers, she believes, are skilled in listening and de-escalating volatile situations.
“We diffuse situations, we’re excellent communicators, and we have other characteristics that traditionally have been overlooked and undervalued,” Ponce de Leon says.
Commander Jose Gonzalez agrees and says that as the father of three daughters, the initiative especially resonates with him.
“This initiative shows that this profession is changing and shifting,” Gonzalez says. “What society demands now is a more understanding, more caring workforce that can still act in critical, lifesaving situations.”
“The female mind is better equipped, in my opinion, to slow things down in critical moments,” he continues. “I’ve noticed that the females in our department will talk their way through something as they work to resolve conflict.”
The fact that Chief David Valentin is leading the first-ever effort among the county’s policing agencies is significant, Gonzalez says.
“This initiative elevates the women’s perspective and everything they bring to the table. It will bring balance to the department and shift how we do things,” he says. “There is value there.”
As a larger, older city, Santa Ana is distinctive among Orange County cities, Lopez notes.
“We respond to more complex calls and to more calls,” she says. “But we have amazing support from the community; we have a lot of hardworking individuals that respect and understand what we do.”
“People generally understand that there’s a human behind the badge,” she adds. “With every call for service, we can show that you’re getting more than just a uniform. We are truly there to help you.”