In recent weeks two videos–each showing a cop approach a black teenage girl for a nonviolent offense–have gone viral. In one, shot at a South Carolina high school, the officer responds to a mildly disruptive student by flipping her desk and slamming her to the ground. In the other, shot on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk, the officer gets teens to disperse after a fight by engaging in a dance-off. The main difference between the cops: the first was a man, the second a woman.
These anecdotes are more revealing than you might think. Although there is no catchall solution to the U.S.’s policing problems, there is data to suggest that recruiting more female cops–who make up 12% of the national force–could reduce unnecessary violence. A 2002 study by the National Center for Women & Policing, for example, found that women accounted for only 5% of excessive-force complaints in seven major cities, despite making up almost 13% of police personnel. And in 2014, only 9% of complaints against the New York City police department were about a female officer, even though women make up 17% of its force.
Yet putting more women on patrol will require a cultural shift. Recruiting materials tend to emphasize car chases and shoot-outs, which appeal more to males than to females, and entrance tests prioritize physical strength over communication skills–even though the latter may be more important. “It’s not that women aren’t capable of using force,” says Mary O’Connor, assistant chief of the Tampa police, who has been an officer for 22 years. “We’re just more inclined to use it as a last resort.”
This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.