Since the 1890s, California law enforcement agencies had employed women in caretaker positions—as matrons, supervisors, and other workers—in penal institutions for adult females and juveniles. In 1910, the Los Angeles Police Department hired the first policewoman in the United States who held powers of arrest. Her name was Alice Stebbin Wells.
Mrs. Wells, a married woman with three children, was a graduate of Oberlin College and Hartford Theological Seminary, where she studied theology and criminology. From 1903 to 1906 she was a social worker and assistant pastor in Oklahoma. But a study she had conducted at Hartford convinced her there was a great need for woman police officers, so after moving to Los Angeles with her family, Alice gathered signatures on a petition which finally convinced the LAPD to hire her. She was sworn in on September 12, 1910.
Alice’s job was classified under civil service like her male counterparts, but unlike them she was not entitled to carry a gun. Equipped with a telephone call box key, a police rule book, a first aid book, and a badge, she began her career supervising skating rinks, dance halls, and other public recreation areas. Soon, the LAPD issued an order specifying that young women could only be questioned by a female police officer.
In 1915, Alice Wells founded and became the first president of the International Policewoman’s Association. By then, 16 other American cities and several foreign countries had hired women police officers as a direct result of the nationwide publicity her appointment generated—and her own tireless efforts to promote the need for female officers as persons particularly qualified to work with juveniles and female criminals.
In 1918, she persuaded the University of California to create the first course dedicated specifically to the educational needs of female police officers. She also founded the Los Angeles Social Hygiene Society, an organization that helped youth in need and supported sex education in the city. Alice Wells was named the first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California in 1928, and six years later she was appointed as the official LAPD historian. She held this post until she retired in 1940. Following her retirement from 30 years of active duty, she continued to lecture publicly on the need for larger numbers of women to enter a career in law enforcement.
Born Alice Stebbin in 1873, Alice Wells died August 17, 1957. Her funeral was attended by high-ranking LAPD officers, and a ten-woman honor guard.
March is National Women’s History Month