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Highest-ranking woman in state police history reflects on experience as force looks to diversify

Rebecca Hooks at work in her office
Andrew Campbell
Capitol News Illinois
Illinois State Police First Deputy Director Rebecca Hooks, the highest-ranking woman in agency history, works in her office in Springfield.

The night before Rebecca Hooks started at the Illinois State Police Academy in 2002, she spoke on the phone with her father and her brother – both of whom worked in law enforcement.

Her father encouraged her, telling her she was strong and could get through the boot camp-like experience. Her brother, in typical sibling fashion, offered encouragement by warning her against messing up and embarrassing him.

More than 20 years later, Hooks was promoted to first deputy director of the Illinois State Police in 2023, becoming the first woman to be second in command of the agency despite never setting out to be a trailblazer.

“I wanted to work hard and be the – do the – best I could at every seat that I was in,” Hooks said.

Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said Hooks’ compassionate professionalism made an “outstanding first impression” on him five years ago when he took over the agency. He told Capitol News Illinois Hooks led him through a “very visceral, very intense” crime scene while also making sure the officers impacted by the incident were supported during an investigation of a state trooper’s death.

“She was one of many people that I’ve seen over the five years I’ve been director where I’ve seen great potential and strong leadership and strong skills,” Kelly said.

Many women are not choosing a similar path though. Of the last 86 Illinois State Police Academy graduates, only eight – or 9 percent – were women. As of February, only 10 percent of the ISP’s total 1,812 sworn officers were women.

The Illinois State Police do have a higher-than-average presence of women in law enforcement leadership, however. Women make up 14 percent of ISP’s leadership, according to an agency spokesperson. But the 30x30 Initiative, a coalition of law enforcement experts and agencies trying to diversify police forces across the U.S., reports that women hold just 3 percent of leadership positions across the country on average.

In 2021, the Illinois State Police signed a pledge through the 30x30 Initiative to make police cadet classes at least 30 percent women by 2030 and further increase the representation of women in the agency.

‘The research is clear’

Hooks said the effort is important because police forces perform better when they represent the communities they serve.

“We have sworn personnel as well as civilian personnel and everyone plays a role in what we do and we fulfill the mission together,” said Hooks. “So, we need all different types of people – all different shapes, all different sizes, all different genders.”

Tanya Meisenholder, director of gender equity at New York University’s Policing Project and a 30x30 founding partner, said “the research is clear” that women use less force, receive fewer complaints, and are perceived as more compassionate and empathetic while caring for victims.

A 2021 case study published in the research journal Science that used data from the Chicago Police Department found female officers were 28 percent less likely to use force than male officers in general, and 31 percent less likely to use force against Black people. Because women are less likely to use force, they are less likely to be involved in civil liability cases, which can save taxpayer money, according to research from 2002 published by the National Center for Women and Policing, a prior branch of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Other studies published in Feminine Criminology and Oxford University Press on behalf of The Review of Economic Studies suggest women officers do a better job reporting, closing and managing rape and domestic violence cases.

Intentional recruitment efforts

The Illinois State Police is one of over 350 other organizations that have signed the 30x30 pledge, which requires the agency to regularly share progress reports on its inclusion policies.

Meisenholder said partner organizations have “seen positive results” from intentional recruitment strategies.

“With recruitment ads in particular, I think we've had a lot of success in getting people to think very carefully about what their ads represent,” Meisenholder said. “Are they showcasing the reality of policing, are they showing all the diversity in their workforce? And I think that makes a difference.”

Kelly said the Illinois State Police is focusing their “messaging and outreach” on barriers women might face when joining the force and opportunities they can have with the agency.

“By talking about the many career paths that are possible for anybody who wants to serve the Illinois State Police, that allows us to engage in a conversation with women that may be thinking about serving in law enforcement,” Kelly said.

Kelly said sometimes potential cadets, including women and their loved ones, might have concerns about safety and the ability to raise a family while on the force.

“I think the greatest challenge that we have is that people think that this is only a job for men, and that’s because for, you know, hundreds of years that’s the way it’s been perceived,” Kelly said.

But Hooks, who comes from a family of law enforcement and medical professionals where things like “crazy schedules” are normal, said none of these barriers impacted her.

“I didn’t have anyone in my family who was against me doing it,” Hooks said. “It was just, ‘okay, we’re getting another cop in the family,’ and it was great.”

For those who are worried, Hooks said, “you get the skills and the training that you need” to safely do the job. She also said the notion that women are unable to have a family or life outside the force is a “false concept.”

“We have a lot of women in the department who have families, there’s a lot of men in the department who have families,” Hooks said. “It’s not a barrier, there’s more opportunities in the department than people realize.” Hooks said beyond division patrol – the officers who enforce traffic laws on state highways – ISP officers can go into internal or criminal investigations or forensics, which is where Hooks spent much of her career.

In an attempt to better demonstrate those opportunities with the Illinois State Police, a spokesperson said the agency is developing a public recruitment campaign with Southern Illinois University Carbondale that is “specific to women” and includes elements of their partnership with 30x30. The campaign also includes other marketing materials recruiters can share at hiring events.

The spokesperson said ISP recruiters regularly attend the Women in Criminal Justice Conference, an annual Midwestern networking and continuing education event, and participate in career fairs at historically women’s colleges.

Hooks said managing her new schedule can be difficult, but “a good team and good communication” within her department allows for flexibility. She said she has time to spend with her family and friends, as well as participating in activities like training for marathons.

Changing agency culture

Part of 30x30’s mission is to ultimately change agency cultures and welcome diversity across all demographics in policing by making recruits feel supported in the profession.

Meisenholder said the theory of representative bureaucracy suggests that when minority representation reaches 30 percent, the organization’s culture reaches a tipping point of being more welcoming.

“So, I think when you feel heard, when you have people that are supportive, perhaps mentors, then you can engage a bit more and feel more comfortable talking about whatever it is you’re experiencing,” Meisenholder said.

In addition to thinking about recruitment strategies, Meisenholder said agencies could examine policies, such as those relating to additional support for pregnant people and new parents, like lactation rooms.

“We also ask them to think about how they’re engaging with their workforce and their women in particular,” Meisenholder said. “And are they listening to the challenges they might be facing?”

The Illinois State Police filed its 24-month check-in survey with 30x30 in June 2023 and indicated policies supporting nursing mothers are “still a work in progress,” although women “are given the opportunity to work their schedule if necessary.” The agency also responded that it requires sexual harassment and bias training and supports a yearly mentorship program. It also shared that it is continuing to focus on social media recruiting initiatives highlighting 30x30 and its mission.

Hooks – who attributes much of her own success to hard work and good mentors – emphasized that the agency’s culture of integrity and accountability was another key to her success.

“And I’ve looked at positions in the ISP and thought, ‘oh, I wouldn’t be good at that’ or ‘that’s really not my skill set, I’m not interested in that,’” Hooks said. “But I never looked at a position and thought ‘oh, I can’t do that because I’m a woman,’ and no one ever treated me that way.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Alex Abbeduto is a reporter at Capitol News Illinois.