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The Fairfax County Police Department has launched a new program aimed at recruiting young women of diverse ethnic backgrounds into its ranks.

The “Future Women Leaders in Law Enforcement” program is a six-day academy-style course that shows high school-age girls the ins and outs of day-to-day police work and tries to dispel some misperceptions about police officers and police work, officials say.

According to Patrol Bureau Commander Maj. Cynthia McAlister, sworn female officers make up only 13 percent of the Fairfax County Police Department. “That may not sound like a lot,” she said. “But that’s almost twice the percentage it was in the mid-1980s, when it was more like seven percent. That said, we can always use more. We also don’t have a high diversity within our department — certainly not reflective of the county — so we’re always looking to improve that as well.”

According to county data, white officers currently make up approximately 84 percent of Fairfax County’s 1,360-member police department, significantly higher than the county’s general population (54 percent white).

According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, nearly one in five Fairfax residents (17.5 percent) is of Asian descent, while Hispanics make up nearly 16 percent of Fairfax’s overall population. Those numbers drop considerably when applied to the Fairfax County Police Department, where only 4.3 percent of officers are Asian and 4.1 percent are Hispanic.

McAlister said the new course also aims to show young women that police work is not all about physical strength.

“Some stereotypes are not correct and you don’t need to always use physical force — you need to use all your skills, and your empathy, to disarm a situation so nobody gets hurt,” she said. “Police officers encounter a lot of stressful situations where people are not at their best, and are not always thinking right. Some may be suffering from mental health or substance-abuse issues, and it takes empathy and communication skills to diffuse the situation. Communication skills are often your biggest asset, and not brute strength.”

According to academy coordinator Tracey Ryan, 65 female teen applicants for the program were recruited from local high schools and were then put through a rigorous application process. Forty made the final cut. “We checked references and performed background checks,” she said. Of those, 38 completed the course.

Erin McDonald, 17, a senior at Bishop O’Connell High School, was one of them.

“I either want to be a pediatrician or a police officer,” she said. “This course gave me a better understanding of what a police officer really does. I am going to the University of South Carolina in the fall and they have a great criminal justice program as well as a great pre-med program, so either way I’m covered.”

Cobi Matsomoto, 17, a Westfield High School senior, said she, too, is interested in law enforcement.

“I have a relative who is a chief of police in Hawaii,” she said. “I guess because of that, I am also interested in helping people, and I learned a lot here. I didn’t take the criminal justice classes in school, but this is something that I now am interested in.”

Second Lt. Jennifer Lescallett, chief flight officer of the Fairfax County Helicopter Division, said the new program may help young women to realize the many opportunities open to them within the department.

“Many girls don’t really know what we do day-to-day,” she said. “There are so many specialties within the police department, and I think this program gives these girls a more realistic view of what they potentially could do here.” It also may help some to realize that policing might not be their cup of tea after all, according to Master Police Officer Tammy Russell, a tactical flight officer and paramedic who also is in the Fairfax County Helicopter Division.

“This new program is fantastic, but while diversity is OK, quality is very important,” said Russell. “This is an important job and needs to be taken seriously. You can be called upon to make life-and-death decisions and you need to have that ‘hair on the back of your neck’ instinct. That’s an important personal quality.”