Lindsay Lopez loved seeing her sister in uniform. Sometimes she’d help Brianna prep for her late-night patrol shift, braiding her wavy hair back into a bun, and marvel at the change that came over her little sister.
In the crisp blue pants and navy button down of an El Paso police officer, Brianna looked “powerful,” Lindsay Lopez recalls. “Like, if she needed to help somebody, she could. But if she needed to flip the switch and handle business — she could go from helping somebody to arresting somebody. She could do both.”
Three years after Officer Brianna Lopez joined the El Paso Police Department, her sister is now standing alongside her. It was Brianna who pinned a police badge on Officer Lindsay Lopez when she graduated from training in July.
Together, the Lopez sisters form a small but increasingly important part of the city’s police force — women officers.
A growing amount of evidence shows the benefits that women bring to police departments. Though female officers are just as likely to be physically threatened on the job as male officers, they use less force against civilians, a number of studies have shown.
“They do draw their guns, but they’re less likely to pull the trigger,” said Egbert Zavala, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Hiring more female officers has the potential to reduce lethal violence in our society.”
Some studies have found that female police officers devote more attention to crime victims than their male counterparts, he said.
“If a male officer gets a call for domestic violence, he shows up at someone’s house, he’s going to be more concerned about arresting the perpetrator. Studies have shown that in the same scenario, females are more likely to, yes, arrest the perpetrator — and go and talk to the victim,” he said. “They’ll ask, ‘What is it that you need from us, is there anything that I can do?’”
This is part of what Brianna Lopez, 28, loves most about her job: Not just the adrenaline, not just the problem solving, but also seeing people through some of their darkest moments.
“I always say this to people: we’re not just here to come and arrest your dad, your mom, your sister … We’re also here just to help you out,” she said. “If you just need a moment, and you want to break down and cry — all right, cool. Let’s just sit down, let it out. I’ll sit down with you.”
Despite these benefits, the percentage of women in U.S. police departments has remained stagnant for two decades, at a national average of 15% for large urban departments, according to FBI data. That’s about half the proportion of female police officers in other industrialized countries, such as Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
In the El Paso Police Department, 163 of the department’s 1,131 officers are females, or 14.4%, according to a U.S. Department of Justice Equal Employment Opportunity report submitted Aug. 31. This number has risen about half a percentage point since 2020, when the department last published a report, and only because the number of male officers dropped.
In both the 2020 and 2022 reports, female police officers were deemed “significantly underutilized” in El Paso compared to the proportion of women in the city’s labor force.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has 16.7% female officers; the majority of these are detention officers assigned to the county jails.
In her three years with EPPD, Brianna Lopez has noticed a high need for female police officers. “I can tell you, we are hurting especially for females,” she said. “We need more females.”
As a relatively new officer, Lopez typically works nights; more senior officers receive priority for daytime shifts, she said. But during the four months she spent on a day shift she found herself crossing back and forth across the city each day responding to calls for a female officer.
“You do get those people that are like, ‘No, I only want to talk to a female cop,’” she said.
“Some of the times they just want to talk to a female cop because they feel we have more understanding for how they’re feeling from a victim’s standpoint, with whatever happened to them,” Lopez added. She’s also noticed some women only feel comfortable talking to female cops.
More women on police forces can boost reporting of violent crimes against women and reduce the occurrence of domestic violence, according to a 2019 study.
El Paso could increase the number of women in policing by adjusting its physical fitness requirements for male and female applicants at its police training academy, Zavala, of UTEP, said.
While agencies ranging from the U.S. Army and the Texas Department of Public Safety now have different physical benchmarks for men and women, many police departments — including El Paso — have the same physical testing standards for all applicants.
“And so right there, that whittles out a lot of females,” Zavala said.
El Paso last revised its physical ability standards in 2010, said Sgt. Jeremy Ontiveros, who oversees the training program. A now-defunct medical consulting company recommended a set of physical entry requirements that would be doable for men and women, he noted.
Though the department does not have specific policies designed to recruit female police officers, Ontiveros said he felt that EPPD’s social media presence had been effective in reaching a wider range of potential recruits.
Going back to 2015, females have made up between 12 to 35% of each training academy class, according to EPPD data provided through a public records request.
Brianna Lopez was one of 11 women in the January 2019 graduating class of 51 cadets. Lindsay Lopez was one of 9 women in July’s graduating class of 31, the same gender breakdown as the current class, which will graduate next May.
Lindsay Lopez, 31, has just started her job at EPPD, a year-long period of “probation” where she’ll receive field training on different facets of police work. One challenge she’s gearing up for is adapting to what will likely be years of the graveyard shift, and missed holidays, all while raising her three-year-old son.
“I might just have to sacrifice my sleep a little bit. Just to also make time for him. But then at the same time, I need to be alert at night. So I’m not sure how I’m going to go about doing that. But I mean, either way, it’s gonna have to be done,” she said, noting that her parents have stepped up to help.
Teresa M. Chavira joined the EPPD in 1988 and raised two children during her time as a police officer. Now the law enforcement liaison at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, she was the department’s first female bomb technician and retired as a detective in 2013, after 25 years on the force.
Few of her female colleagues lasted that long, especially once they had children.
“A big part of the retention problem was women having to take care of children, especially if they were single mothers,” Chavira said. “With the (night) shift work, it was just impossible finding a daycare. Who’s gonna watch a baby all night?”
At the time, EPPD offered no maternity leave for new parents, she said, which forced officers to use their sick days to care for newborns. Chavira took additional unpaid leave to care for her first child. For a nursing mother, or a woman who’d just had a C-section, going back out onto street patrol wearing a 12-pound gun belt within six weeks was simply too soon, she said.
Passed in 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks off to care for family members, including newborns, without risking their jobs but also without mandated pay.
For paid parental leave, city of El Paso employees — which includes EPPD officers — must still use their accrued sick or vacation days.
New police officers start receiving 10 hours of sick leave each month as soon as they join the department; they don’t begin to accrue paid vacation days until completing their first probationary year on the job, according to information provided by city spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta. For employees who have worked between 1 to 10 years for the city, a standard full year of vacation and sick leave would add up to 264 hours, or about 33 workdays, of paid time off.
Those who don’t have enough paid days accrued can request up to one month of paid time off that is “donated” by other employees through the city’s Shared Parental Leave program.
The police department doesn’t have policies specifically designed to ensure retention among female officers, Detective Judy Oviedo, an EPPD public information officer, wrote in an email. “All (retention) policies are directed toward the department as a whole in fair employment opportunities,” she said.
This month, EPPD will begin offering an optional “Women in Policing” training to its officers, Cruz-Acosta wrote in an email. Open to all genders and also outside law enforcement agencies, the standalone course has been in development since 2018 and was “designed to motivate and inspire female officers at every rank to share their collective experiences, while discovering effective solutions (to) real issues they face on the job and at home,” she said.
When Chavira first started on the job, the culture could be hostile for women. Any policies designed to help women on the force were perceived as special treatment and often hotly contested, she said. By the time of her retirement, she said the situation had improved.
“Unfortunately, some of it changed due to lawsuits, files of sexual harassment or hostile work environment,” she said. “There were a lot of suits filed throughout the years. A lot of it had to change by force.”
For Chavira, a major turning point was the formation of a police department women’s committee, which she helped found in the mid-1990s. What began as a group of 30 to 45 women meeting monthly to discuss job challenges became the annual El Paso Police Department Women’s Conference, which expanded to include outside law enforcement agencies — “Border Patrol, customs officers, sheriff’s deputies, even firefighters,” she said — and soon drew international attendees.
“It would bring new ideas and new ways to handle situations. You could talk about how to fix things without having to take legal action,” she said.
Chavira said the committee and the conference were ended abruptly and with little explanation under Police Chief Greg Allen, who took office in 2008. The conference ended that same year due to lack of funding, Cruz-Acosta wrote in an email to El Paso Matters.
Today, one legacy of the women’s committee can be seen in the uniforms worn by the Lopez sisters.
Police shirts and bulletproof vests weren’t originally crafted to accommodate breasts, Chavira noted. “They were completely flat and restricted your breathing,” she said. At the advice of the committee, EPPD began ordering vests in the late ‘90s that could be fitted according to bra size. Even footwear was a challenge; boots small enough to fit some women’s feet had to be specially ordered.
Years later, Brianna Lopez says she hasn’t experienced such challenges. “I’ve never really had a problem with anyone (in the department) being like, ‘oh you’re female, you can’t do this job,” she said.
But she’s warned her sister — just as she was warned — to expect to get tested, and not necessarily by coworkers.
Once, she and two other female officers responded to a dispatch call from a man whose grandson was experiencing a mental health crisis. The man who called “was so angry that it was just girls coming in,” she said. “He was yelling at us that we were a bunch of — every name in the book that you can think of to be called as a female.”
Lopez was polite, she said, but a lot was running through her mind: “Bro, you don’t know what all of us have been through to get here. We’ve been to the police academy; we’ve put blood, sweat and tears to get here. … Nobody handed it to us. And we want to be here.”
Together, the three women helped stabilize the young man, Lopez said, a mix of frustration and pride in her voice. They left the house and high-fived.
“Good job, girls,” they told each other, and got back to work.