The number of full-time female officers at the Ashland Police Department has dwindled from six to two over the past 15 years, Police Chief Terry Holderness said.

The number of full-time female officers at the Ashland Police Department has dwindled from six to two over the past 15 years, Police Chief Terry Holderness said.

Women now make up about 8 percent of the 25-member full-time force.

As a result, the department frequently has no female officers on duty, leaving it ill-equipped to respond to some calls, such as those involving female sexual assault victims, who sometimes do not want to talk to male officers.

"We have traditionally had a higher percentage of female officers than we have now," Holderness said. "We're starting to see it as a problem that we're working on. But I don't know that there's a real good solution with our resources."

Holderness, whose wife is a retired police officer, is trying to recruit more female officers, but is finding the task difficult given the department's limited budget.

"I don't have anything formal because, quite honestly, I don't have the personnel to do a lot of formal stuff," he said. "We don't have the resources to do targeted recruitment."

The chief had hoped to hire a woman to replace Officer Teri DeSilva, who retired in December and is now working part-time for the department through June. However, few women applied for the open position and none were as qualified as the man the chief has hired, he said.

"As much as I was hoping I would get a female, my top three candidates were all male," he said. "We can't discriminate in the hiring process."

The female officers at the department — DeSilva, Detective Carrie Hull and Officer Lisa Evans — said they don't feel they do more work than their male colleagues, although they are often asked to respond to certain types of calls, such as those involving a female suspect who needs to be searched and female sexual assault victims who prefer to speak with a female officer.

"We occasionally have a sex crime victim that's uncomfortable talking to male officer, so having a female to do that is really important and it sure makes our lives a lot easier," Holderness said.

At times, female officers are called in when off duty to respond to sexual assault cases, DeSilva said.

"If it's a domestic situation where the victim has bruises on her thighs or breasts, certainly we would be the one taking those photographs," she said.

Occasionally, victims who wish to speak to a female officer have to wait until one comes on duty, she said.

The majority of female sexual abuse victims feel more comfortable talking with a female officer, said Susan Moen, co-executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team.

"We definitely have had survivors who did not have access to a female detective complain about that or say that that was a problem for them," she said.

Speaking with a male officer when a victim has just been attacked by a man can, at times, be re-traumatizing, Moen said.

"We know that the victim is going to talk more freely to a woman about medical issues or sexual issues," she said.

Police departments throughout Oregon and in many other states, have a difficult job recruiting and retaining female officers, Holderness said.

"It's the same as every city I've seen in the United States, but the smaller the city, the greater the problem is likely to be," he said.

There were few female officers in the Portland Police Bureau when Hull worked there in 2006, she said.

"For the 1,000 officers in Portland, there was about the same ratio of women and men working there as in Ashland," she said. "It's just more noticeable here because it's a smaller department."

There are a variety of reasons why women are less likely to be interested in becoming officers, DeSilva said.

"The thing is, it's just been a male-dominant profession," she said. "Historically the only women in law enforcement were matrons and they wore skirts."

DeSilva, the only female teacher at the state police academy, taught a class of new recruits last week in which there was one woman and 39 men.

"It just kind of shocked me," she said. "Most of the time when I teach there are three to six females in a class of forty, but just one female, that's unusual."

She regularly speaks with Southern Oregon University's criminology students, and tries to encourage the female students to become police officers.

Holderness tries to mentor interested applicants, in the hopes that they will score higher on the various tests and interviews used in the hiring process, he said.

Having a male-to-female ratio of officers that reflects the ratio in the community would be ideal, he said.

"To the extent possible, we would like for the demographics of the department to be consistent with the demographics of the people that we police," he said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.