On September 12, 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was sworn in as the first woman police officer with full powers of arrest in Los Angeles, California, and in the United States as a whole. She carried no weapon, but otherwise had the same authority to make arrests as did male officers.
The appointment of Wells attracted nationwide attention. In 1914, she was the subject of a biographical film entitled The Policewoman. The University of California created the first course dedicated to the work of female police officers in 1918, and Wells was made the first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California in 1928. In 1934 she was also made the LAPD historian, and by 1937 there were 39 female officers in the LAPD, and five reserves. Wells remained the department’s historian until she retired on November 1, 1940. She is remembered for having “fought for the idea that women, as regular members of municipal police departments, are particularly well-qualified to perform protective and preventative work among juveniles and female criminals.”
Since 1891, law enforcement agencies had employed women only for the care of female prisoners. After Wells successfully petitioned for a place on the LAPD and was sworn in on September 12, 1910, she was hired and equipped with a telephone call box key, a police rule book and first aid book, and the “Policewoman’s Badge Number One”.
Wells was responsible for hand sewing her own police uniform, which was the first police woman’s uniform in the United States. It was a floor-length dress and jacket. A reproduction of this very outfit is on display at The Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum. Wells was assigned to work with the LAPD’s first juvenile officer, and was quickly the subject of an order issued by the force that ruled that young women could now only be questioned by female police officers.
Wells began her career supervising skating rinks and dance halls, as well as interacting with female members of the public. In addition, although Wells was a sworn officer she was not entitled to carry a gun, unlike male officers. Two years after Wells joined the force, two other female officers were sworn in, with all female officers now under the control of the Civil Service. Sixteen other cities and several foreign countries hired female police officers as a direct result of Wells’ activities by 1915, when Wells created the International Policewomen’s Association.
She always advocated for more women officers to help youth in need and women who might not feel comfort in speaking to policemen. Wells also founded, and was the president of, the Los Angeles Social Hygiene Society where she supported sex education in the city of Los Angeles.
Wells died in 1957, and her funeral was attended by high-ranking officers from the LAPD, and a ten-woman honor guard.