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Looking Back

A Police Pioneer on Her Unfinished Business

Portland’s first female chief, Penny Harrington, recalls the steep climb to the top.

Portland Police Chief Penny Harrington, center, in 1986 with her husband, Officer Bruce Gary Harrington, and her sister, police Capt. Roberta Webber.
Portland Police Chief Penny Harrington, center, in 1986 with her husband, Officer Bruce Gary Harrington, and her sister, police Capt. Roberta Webber.

If you want to know why the numbers of women in policing have stagnated in the past 20 years, hovering at 12 percent of municipal police officers and 3 percent of police chiefs, a good place to start is Portland, Oregon.

In 1908, Portland appointed Lola Baldwin as the superintendent of the Women's Protective Division (WPD), making her the nation’s first policewoman. In 1985, Portland again made history, when Penny Harrington was appointed as chief, making her the first woman to head a major U.S. city police department.

Harrington’s litany of firsts—first female detective, first female sergeant, first female lieutenant, first female captain—opened many doors. She played a pivotal role in providing women access to precincts, patrol cars and promotions. Now 76, she recounted for The Marshall Project the personal costs of those firsts—her rise to chief, her battles with the”boys-only club,” the tumultuous tenure that forced her to resign, and her disappointment at the distance women still have to go.

Growing up, Harrington imagined becoming a secretary or some other gender stereotype. Then she attended a high school career day that featured a policewoman, and everything changed.

Harrington enrolled in Michigan State University’s Police Administration program. There, she was steered towards juvenile justice and child psychology courses. It was, after all, the role women filled in law enforcement at the time.

She was hired by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to work in the Women’s Protective Division. The WPD was considered progressive at its inception in 1908, but not so much in 1964. Portland policewomen were required to have a college degree and wear “ladylike” clothes—silk pussy-bow blouses, black slingback pumps and white gloves. Policemen were required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and earned significantly more.

Harrington quickly learned the ropes at WPD. After five years though, Harrington longed for relief from the emotional toll that “women’s work” entailed—battered children, sexual assault.

She learned about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and decided to apply for a detective position in the Portland Police Bureau, a job only open to patrolmen. When she applied, the Civil Service Division accused her of being a troublemaker. She was reassigned to secretarial duties.

Harrington ranked at the top on a test for policewoman sergeant, but she was passed over because of the “detective stunt”. She became the first person in PPB history to be skipped over on a promotional list.

Around this time, the Portland Police Association (PPA) was trying to unionize. Harrington was recruited by Capt. Leo Miller, with a copy of “Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan. Harrington says the book spoke to all that she felt at the PPB but couldn’t articulate. She agreed to help organize if her rights were included in the association’s agenda. Miller agreed.

In 1969, the PPA was unionized, negotiating huge raises. It also set up a Planning and Research Division, which Miller asked her to join, but the chief refused to transfer her.

In frustration, she marched to City Hall and demanded to see Mayor Terry Schrunk. Schrunk patiently listened to her history of being passed over. “There’s nothing I can do,” was his response.

“If you don’t transfer me, I’m going to sue you,” she vowed.

By the time she returned to her office, she had been transferred, making her the first policewoman transferred to the PPB. It was January 1970.

Harrington and Miller worked long hours on multiple projects, growing closer and eventually becoming lovers. With Miller’s support, she continued her fight for women’s rights. She attacked “the agility test, the separate patrolman/policewoman classifications, the promotions system, the transfer policies, the pay policies—everything!”

She quietly requested to have all the PPB’s classifications changed to police officer, instead of patrolman or policewoman. The request was approved. The change, seemingly minor, meant that men and women could apply for detective ranks. Shockwaves rocked the PPB when the list was announced. Three women were on it, with Harrington leading the pack.

It was the first time Harrington experienced open hostility from patrolmen. Men yelled, “You aren’t qualified to be a detective!” “You’re taking the job away from the man that has to support a family!”

After Penny Harrington became Portland’s first female detective, she received lewd and hostile phone calls and hate mail.  This letter mailed to her house called her a “fat homley (sic) double chin hump back cow.”

After Penny Harrington became Portland’s first female detective, she received lewd and hostile phone calls and hate mail. This letter mailed to her house called her a “fat homley (sic) double chin hump back cow.”

In February 1972, Harrington became a Portland detective. She began to get lewd phone calls and hate mail. One memorable letter called her a “fat homley [sic] double chin hump back cow.”

Next she hired an attorney to fight the PPB’s pay disparity, filing 42 complaints between 1975 and 1978. “I didn’t want to be controversial, but there was no other way,” she said.

She then petitioned to eliminate the height requirement, telling the media that Mayor Neil Goldschmidt refused to keep his campaign promise on the matter. Goldschmidt was furious. He met with Harrington and insisted, she recalls, “Women aren’t strong enough to do this job; if a man resists how is she going to arrest him?”

Harrington retorted, “Let’s say you and I go outside, and if I can’t get these handcuffs on you in less than one minute, then I’ll shut up and go away.”

She says the mayor replied, “Are you threatening me?”

Eventually, though, Goldschmidt read her research showing that women could hold their own in the field, and he relented. By the end of 1973, three women were sworn in as Portland police officers.

One of them, Annette Jolin, professor emeritus at Portland State University, speaks of her experience as “punishing.” “Women were referred to as ‘cracks,’” she said. “The men refused to work with us, and the department refused to make them.”

She credited Harrington for helping women manage those times. “Penny was so supportive of the three of us,” she says. “She would have sessions for us at her house. She wanted us to succeed.”

Harrington rarely took vacation time, developing a long list of ailments. One day she collapsed at work. She was diagnosed with stress. Harrington recalls, “My health suffered because of the constant fighting. But all I could think was—If I stop now, they were going to win.”

Leo Miller helped nurse her back to health, providing moral and financial support while she was out of work.

In her book, “Triumph of Spirit,” Harrington writes that Miller turned down the chief’s position when he could not get assurances against political interference from City Hall. According to Harrington, Miller was then subjected to a series of “disciplinary” transfers, eventually landing in the Traffic Division, a “do-nothing job.”

In April 1975, Miller abruptly resigned from the PPB, saying he needed to rest. In the throes of her own depression and anxiety, Harrington says she didn’t realize that Miller was also quietly suffering from stress. Shortly before her July 1975 return to work, Miller committed suicide.

He left a note in an envelope addressed to “Penny”. It read, “My work was my life. I choose not to seek a second career.” The envelope contained a bank slip. Miller had deposited his savings into her account.

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Harrington returned as a North Precinct sergeant, considered a “dumping ground for misfits”. The assignment was a blessing though. The officers rallied around Harrington after Miller’s death. “They cared about me and wanted me to succeed,” Harrington says.

Harrington took the written lieutenant’s exam, placing first. However, during the oral portion of the exam she was asked questions such as, “Do you think that men will respect you?” “Do you really believe that a woman could discipline a man?” She scored poorly on the oral interview, lowering her ranking from one to four. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of the discriminatory questioning.

In August 1975, she joined an ACLU class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice for failure to enforce civil rights legislation. In February 1977, the PPB announced her promotion to lieutenant.

Harrington recounts walking in on the precinct captain groping a new secretary, as he pinned her against a cabinet. Harrington says she yelled, “Let her go,” and convinced the secretary to file a complaint.

Deputy Chief James Brouillette assured Harrington the matter would be handled swiftly, while the captain was away on vacation.

To Harrington’s surprise, the captain returned from vacation and summoned Harrington to his office. He asked for a briefing on precinct activity. As Harrington obeyed, she alleges the captain grabbed her hand and rubbed it across his genitals.

She says, “I punched him in the face and knocked him to the ground!”

In 1980, she became the youngest and the first female captain of the Portland Police Bureau. She became the personnel captain, working to address community concerns of discriminatory policing practices.

Trust between community groups and the PPB continued to deteriorate with a scandal involving the narcotics team. The team executed a search warrant at the home of a motorcycle gang leader. As the team breached the door using a battering ram, a man with a shotgun opened fire, killing a detective.

At the hospital, drugs were found in the slain officer’s pocket, triggering a large scale corruption scandal. A special commission found that narcotics officers committed perjury, planted drugs and stole narcotics and money. Ten officers were fired or resigned, and one was convicted of unrelated drug charges. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schunk released a report citing 94 cases of police misconduct, asking for 58 pardons for the wrongly convicted.

Only two narcotics officers were left unscathed; one was Harrington’s sister, Roberta.

In another instance that strained community trust, officers left dead possums in front of the Burger Barn, a popular restaurant in a predominantly black neighborhood. The black owner saw the patrol cars driving away and notified the media. Two officers were fired, a move that Harrington supported. The union appealed the decision, and an arbitrator reinstated the officers.

In 1984, John E. “Bud” Clark, an activist and owner of a bar popular with Portland’s intelligencia, mounted an insurgent campaign for mayor and pulled off a surprising upset. He served two terms and changed Harrington’s life.

Clark wanted to transform the Portland Police Bureau. His first move was to fire the chief, Ron Still. Clark said in an interview, “I wanted to fire the whole department and start all over again, because how do you change the culture?.”

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Clark selected Harrington because “she was fully supported by the PD; she had involvement with the community …. She was the most qualified of the candidates at the time.”

Portland Mayor Bud Clark presents a badge to new city police chief Penny Harrington at her swearing-in ceremony in Portland, Ore., in 1985.

Portland Mayor Bud Clark presents a badge to new city police chief Penny Harrington at her swearing-in ceremony in Portland, Ore., in 1985.

On Jan. 24, 1985, Harrington became chief. During many media events, she was asked, “Did I sleep my way to the top? Will men take orders from you? Was my husband having a macho crisis? Jane Pauley of the NBC Today Show asked me if Bud Clark appointed me just as a publicity stunt.”

Harrington faced challenges immediately. First, the mayor agreed to provide police services to much of Multnomah County, adding 30 square miles, 60,000 people, and an estimated 32,000 calls to the already overburdened bureau. The following week, Portland lost a major arbitration battle with the union, giving police officers a 10 percent pay increase. The city council ruled that the money would come from the existing police budget, leading to 72 police officer layoffs.

And fearing a repeat of the 1982 narcotics team scandal, Harrington dismantled the drug unit, incorporating narcotics investigations into the general detective bureau. Harrington recalls, “The narcotics officers seemed too arrogant, too secretive .... The move meant they would be more closely supervised and concentrate on upper level drug dealers, with street level drugs being handled by patrol officers.”

The union regularly panned her performance. In her memoir she writes that “the resistance may be no more than an angry response to impending budget cuts, but it might also reflect the uncertainty with which certain members of the force still view a female chief in a bureau where male officers outnumber females by seven to one.”

Harrington says, “Stan Peters, the union president, went to every roll call in the police bureau and said I was trying to bust the union—I was trying to emasculate him.”

Says Clark, “Peters had this pistol he would carry in the small of his back, and he would always place it on my desk. That’s how our talks always began, with a gun between us. That was the guy he was.”

In April 1985, Portland officers subdued an unarmed black male using a ‘sleeper’ hold, killing the 29-year-old security guard. Harrington ordered a review of the use of force policy and the carotid hold; the union marched in protest. While the review was being conducted, two police officers sold T-shirts emblazoned with “Don’t Choke’em, Smoke’em.” She fired them. The union responded with a vote of no confidence. The mayor ignored it.

Harrington learned from Multnomah County district attorney Mike Schrunk that her husband, Gary Harrington (an officer she had married in 1982), was suspected of tipping off a restaurant owner about a drug investigation.

After two months of hearings by a special mayoral commission, Gary was cleared of criminal wrongdoing but was found to have violated police bureau general orders regarding associations with suspected criminals. The report also focused on Harrington’s leadership, stating, “she lost the confidence of her command and is unlikely to ever regain the confidence of a working majority of the bureau or other law enforcement agencies.” The report recommended her removal.

Clark told The Marshall Project, “Her assistant chiefs, they rebelled against her …. You can’t run an army that way.”

She says the damning report left her no choice but to resign. Harrington forfeited her pension with her resignation. She says, “I really went through lows ... I couldn’t stay there after what they did to me. I sold my house. I lived in an apartment, then a small camper. I couldn’t find work for two years until I was hired by the California State Bar Association” as assistant director of investigations. She worked there for seven years, then as director of the National Center for Women in Policing, which helped police departments hire women. Harrington also served as an expert witness in sexual harassment cases. However, the work was physically and emotionally taxing. “You are reliving the trauma of what you experienced over and over again. It was good money, but it wasn’t worth my emotional health.”

Harrington’s path to healing led her to reiki and meditation. She is the owner of a metaphysics shop where she is a master reiki healer.

“I did my part. I’m tired. I’m enjoying my life in my rock shop. It’s someone else’s turn now.”

She is still waiting, she says, for the “MeToo” movement to reach law enforcement. “I was hoping women in law enforcement would speak out too. That tells you how bad it is for women in there. They still don't dare speak up.”

Ivonne Roman, an intern at The Marshall Project this summer, is on leave from the Newark Police Department, where she holds the rank of captain. She founded the Women’s Leadership Academy, to increase the recruitment and retention of women in law enforcement in New Jersey.