Originally hired as matrons in 1918 for such tasks as searching female prisoners, female NOPD officers were not assigned to duties equal to male officers until 1974. Since Pennington took office six years ago, there's been a 50 percent jump in female NOPD officers, meaning that women now comprise more than 15 percent of the 1,676-member force. The national average for hiring women is 13 percent.
NOPD has also tied the Shreveport Police Department for 40th place in the percentage of sworn women officers -- leaping 26 spots in one month -- since April, when the National Center of Women & Policing released its annual survey of 291 law enforcement agencies.
"I promoted more females than anyone in the history of the department," Pennington said, immediately after testifying in the April 24 federal trial of a racial bias promotions case brought against him and the city by white officers. "Look at every rank and count them up."
Yet while the figures do not contradict Pennington, they may belie his enthusiastic claim. NOPD data through May 22 shows there were only two women (5 percent) among the 39 members among the top command, or those officers with a rank of captain or higher. Among the four deputy chiefs is a female chief financial officer.
However, there is only one woman -- a district commander -- among the 31 captains. And there were two female captains when Pennington took charge six years ago. There are 10 female lieutenants today, up from four in 1994. Meanwhile, there are 29 women sergeants today, up from 25 when Pennington joined the NOPD.
Pennington said recently that there are two women atop the new promotional register for captain, but he acknowledges that 31 captains is enough for now and he has no plans to promote more.
Unlike blacks, women officers were not designated for acceleration promotions by the federal consent decree.
The National Center of Women & Policing report indicates that police departments with consent decrees mandating the hiring for minorities are more likely to have larger numbers of women in top command positions. That's not true for NOPD. Not yet.
"I think we have been very successful in reaching out to women and increasing their numbers since 1997," says Terry Ebbert, executive director of the private New Orleans Police Foundation, which supports the NOPD. "Women have a definite place in balancing the police department. We have broken the barrier in ensuring that there is open equality in recruiting and training and that women can complete the same tough training as men."
NOPD's women's organization -- Police Officer Women of Every Rank -- has been monitoring the department on a range of issues, including concerns over disclosing gender-related illnesses to obtain sick leave; and job assignments conducive to raising young children. POWER officials did not return our repeated calls for comment.
However, evidence of Pennington's commitment to hiring more women even extends to department stationery. In 1995, Pennington did what no other chief had done. He dropped the word "policeman" from envelopes and letterhead. Today, NOPD stationery states: "Your police officer is your protector."
Meanwhile, the cover of the commencement program for Recruit Class No. 143 may offer the most recent evidence of the department's campaign to attract women. Framed by NOPD's star and crescent shield, a drawing depicts two police academy graduates standing side by side in cap and gown, holding diplomas. One is white; the other, black. Both are female.