No one in London would turn to gaze after the trim uniform of the Commandant, but here the visored cap, the high-collared shirtwaist and black tie, the trousers and full-skirted coat meeting the tops of the black boots, catch every eye. When the Commandant is caught with her cap off there is another surprise, for the heavy hair is close cropped -- not bobbed, notice. It frames a strong, kindly face, of a type seen more often in England than among the descendants of the settlers on this side of the river. One would not choose to have the steady eyes rest upon one at an untoward moment, but at the corners are humorous wrinkles that show she has never become obsessed by the sordid and tragic scenes known to the police.
The war conditions brought to sudden action in 1914 the plans for an experiment in women on the police force that had long been considered by a group of thoughtful Englishwomen whose social work had shown them the need for some more understanding and careful treatment of women and children than the police force as constituted could give. In that time of need their offer, as a private organization, to train women for appointment to the regular police force was readily accepted. Commandant Allen was one of these women. She herself served on the police force at Grantham, where the experiment was first tried out, and, having learned the job, working side by side with the "Bobbies," she became head of the training school for these new officers, who during the war numbered a thousand, and who are now to be found on the local staffs in various parts of England and Scotland, and in the occupied territory in Germany.
Although the account of the beginnings of this Women's Auxiliary Service states that a study was made of the woman police system already in use in the United States, the new venture rapidly outstripped its forerunner. In a recent important volume on our police system the work of women police in the United States is disposed of in a single sentence in the body of the work and one fine-print note of ten lines.
Finding the work that the women should do and training the chief constables to see why that work should be handed over to women was quite as much a task in those early days as laying out a course of instruction for the candidates, but the women's work is now well defined. They are regular members of local constabularies, on precisely the same basis as to pay and position as the men. They can take action in case of need on any matter that chances to come up in their presence, but their specialties are with women and children. They take charge of women who have attempted suicide; collect personally the evidence of women and children in cases of assault; accompany women prisoners and witnesses; search women prisoners; supervise children in street trades; report on cases of cruelty to children, on bad housing; patrol parks, open spaces, and streets; inspect places of amusement; and do regular duty at the station houses.
The three months' training for these varies tasks is planned to prove the physical endurance and the hardy spirit of the candidate. Only women of education and of ideals as to the possibilities of the work are considered, and those having had some prior experience in social service are most likely to succeed. Given in London, the course takes in a study of the city regulations, traffic along with the rest, though women police are not likely ever to have to deal with unmanageable motor cars. They learn the city departments, the institutions, the social agencies, the movie houses, theaters, dance halls and public houses, and prisons. They go out day after day with the women police. Last, but in Commandant Allen's mind by no means least, is the drill. This is not alone for its obvious value in preparation for parades and guards of honor. It has practical effect in the speed and agility with which the women move, and in their ability to obey orders quickly and to give orders that will be obeyed. It makes for corps spirit that is always a source of strength. So convinced are the leaders of the women's police force of the value of stiff drill during the training that the German women who had asked for training that they might work in the occupied area were refused the uniform until they would accept the drill to which they objected, it being reminiscent of the militarism of the past regime.
The uniform is another essential as English people see this work. While these police officers are the friends and protectors of women and children, they are first of all upholders of law and order. They find the uniform imperative for this and no hindrance to the mission of help and comfort. One suspects that the arguments against the uniformed force in this country arise partly from a wrong notion as to police and their character and duties, a notion that it would not take the right sort of women long to change; partly from the narrow limits of the work of policewomen in our cities, where duty at dance halls is the major part of the program, and partly for an anti-uniform complex that inhabits the American feminine mind. No one who dealt with the women in the hut and canteen work for the A.E.F. will ever forget the weird costumes, in which pink chiffon, enameled pins, pumps, ruffles, and new spring bonnets added notes of bewildering individuality to the official uniform recognized by the army. No grotesque jokes of that sort are played by any policewoman in England. She respects the garb that stands to her for pride in her calling, loyalty to her comrades, duty to the state. Without some outward symbol it is doubtful if the same sense of purpose can be attained. Of its practical usefulness there is no doubt in the minds of those who have been studying this work during the past decade. Wherever the women police are used in England they are known, their duties understood. Here, unless one's business brings one in contact with individuals of the force, one must almost be introduced before one is aware of the policewoman's existence. Waiting at a junction one day, Commandant Allen saw a young girl, evidently quite unused to travel, going off with a man, leaving her little trunk unprotected on the platform. The stationmaster was easily persuaded by the blue coat and the cap to go out of his way to put the box in safety, and then the Commandant thought she would use her odd hour in this town quite out of bailiwick to seeing what had become to the little traveler. She found her shortly in a public house already quite drunk. A look at the blue coat sent the man sliding out the door. There was no difficulty in getting the girl cared for at a hotel until she was in condition to travel. She was an ignorant child, a housemaid, on her way to a new place, who, though she had been warned to speak to no one, had not understood that it was equally dangerous to let any one else begin the conversation. "If I hadn't happened around and been able to do something, even though with no authority in the place, she never have been heard from again," said the Commandant. "We lose lots of them that way."
The women work, however, in mufti as well, and are trained for both types of service. They can, and do if it seems best, make friendly visits to the homes of those under their charge, and as inconspicuously as the school teacher or church visitor.
The special value of women on the force is plainly seen in the effect on children brought in as witnesses. Little children and young girls, surrounded by men, growing more and more frightened and bewildered as the examination goes on, is a common sight here. Not only it is a cruel, often an indecent method, but it does not make for getting at the whole truth of a situation of for the punishment of the offender. Where there are women police they make all the preliminary examinations, and they come into court with the children and the women and stand by them through the terrifying ordeal, giving them courage to stick to their story and give their testimony clearly and fearlessly.
The women police have their own office, which is always open for complaints and appeals. The appeals are often comic, often needless, often sordid, and often tragic. A group of mothers came together to the office in one provincial town to tell of an elderly man who, on the fiction of tea parties, was luring their little girls to his rooms. Women are far less likely to bring even such serious troubles to the men of the force. They do not feel sure of understanding and sympathy, nor of wholehearted efforts at punishing such offenders.
The life of a woman on a local police force in Great Britain is full of variety. Her mind has no chance to become centered on one type of offense. Every sort of problem comes to her desk -- overdue rent, housemaids turned off without pay, shoplifters, lost children, separated households, frightened folk and angry, and those who must be taught in no uncertain terms the rights of others and the reality of law. If the uniform is a sign of safety in the parks, it is because it is a symbol of retribution to those who prey on ignorance and weakness. To the policewoman the task is not merely to help this and that individual case, but to develop public opinion and public habit, to build surroundings in which life will be more decent, more safe, healthier, and more happy.