Why you should care
Newark Police Commander Ivonne Roman wants to help more women get into uniform.
Ivonne Roman was two years into the highly selective Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science program in Washington when she pulled aside Maureen McGough, a senior policy advisor at the Department of Justice, for a wake-up call. “If you guys care about policing issues that are supported by data, why is nobody looking at the fact that there have been no more than 12 percent of women police officers in the country for decades and we’ve had all these recruitment efforts and nothing is changing?” Roman asked. “What are we going to do about it?”
McGough says that question — “in no uncertain terms, in her very endearing, New Jersey way” — changed everything.
Roman, 47, had already held every position from beat cop to police chief in a quarter-century on the Newark police force. She had a master’s degree in public administration and had started working toward a Ph.D. in public affairs and community development (both at Rutgers University). She had already spent the summer of 2018 writing about policing through an internship with The Marshall Project, publishing an article that helped lead to the dismissal of juvenile curfew laws in a number of major cities (data show they don’t work).
Then she became the integral force behind December’s first-ever National Summit on Women in Policing.
I use my wits … because I’m smaller in size.
Cerebral and direct, but with a kind tone and a “Jersey accent” she never realized she had, Roman is on a warpath to bring attention to gender disparity in policing. In a recent TED Talk, Roman lays out her concerns that over the past five years, 65 to 80 percent of women have flunked out of New Jersey’s police academies. The fail rates coincide with new physical fitness tests added by an all-male New Jersey’s Police Training Commission. “When executing a search warrant or making arrests, never once did I do one pushup,” she says. “I’m not saying get rid of the physical fitness standard. I’m saying let’s stop using it as an arbitrary method to weed people out.”
The New Jersey attorney general is now investigating the new policies, and Roman has launched the Women’s Leadership Academy (backed by a grant from Open Society Foundations) to increase the number of women in policing “because research shows that female police officers reduce use of force and they reduce citizen complaints.”
Her short-term goal is to get women to pass the test, even as it stands now. Roman became a certified physical fitness trainer in order to help prepare aspiring female officers physically while linking them with a mentorship network. The Academy also has a group chat. “At any hour of the day I’ll say ‘show me 10,’ and wherever they’re at they gotta drop and show me 10 pushups. I have pictures from the malls, in bathrooms, under desks, in hallways.”
Roman’s research showed that gender disparity on the force wasn’t unique to New Jersey — and hadn’t budged in two decades. So she and McGough built a national summit around the issue, with Roman tapping into her network of big-city police chiefs nationwide. A National Institute of Justice report on the back of the summit details recruitment and retention issues, barriers to promotion and the impact of police culture on women. There are some places getting it right: Roman singles out Madison, Wisconsin, where 30 percent of the force is female and they have a female SWAT team captain, “which is pretty rare.”
At the same time, women are named less in lawsuits and force complaints and have fewer allegations of excessive force. “I use my wits … because I’m smaller in size,” she says. “There’ve been a ton of times where I’ve convinced someone to comply with me by not coming across as aggressive. I still get the same outcome and without having to escalate a situation.”
Roman, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, was born and raised in Newark and initially wanted to go into journalism. But when Roman was applying to college, her mother told her to study business. “I hated it.”
Then, when she was 22, her roommate sent in a police academy application for herself and filled one out for Roman as well. Roman took the opportunity to ditch college at Rutgers. (She eventually earned her B.A. in communications from Thomas Edison State University.) Her 1994 class was the largest in the history of the Newark Police Department, boosted by Clinton administration grants to put 100,000 new police officers on the street. At the time, 20 percent of Newark’s officers were women — and they did not feel welcome.
“We had guys that just feel that women shouldn’t be in law enforcement,” says Israel Caraballo, who was Roman’s instructor at the firearms range back then. In 1997, Caraballo hired Roman to work on auto theft, and they remained colleagues and friends for two decades. “And I’ll tell you what, Ivonne outperformed the men,” says Caraballo. Roman became a sergeant at age 26, was always in the top five for arrests and aced department exams. “On top of that,” Caraballo says, ”she was able to keep her nose clean and climb that ladder.”
Roman was appointed to police chief in 2014 during the political upheaval that followed Cory Booker’s departure from the mayor’s office for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Mayor Ras Baraka then appointed his own chief and Roman was demoted after just four months, a move she expected.
Now a captain in the emergency call center, Roman, who plans to retire in March, is reinventing herself with the Women’s Leadership Academy. One of the biggest barriers to her advocacy is chiefs telling her: “I want women; I try to recruit them, but they don’t apply.” Roman shoots back that it’s about culture: “Do women feel welcome?”
Roman hopes that sexism hasn’t permeated into the next generation of police officers, but she readily acknowledges the boys in blue aren’t the only problem. “As an American culture,” she says, “we’re still really sexist.”