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Unsung Heroes

From Pastor To Cop: Alice Stebbins Wells Was The First Woman To Join The Los Angeles Police Department

More than 110 years ago, Alice Stebbins Wells, a married mother of three, became the first woman to join the Los Angeles Police Department 

By Constance Johnson
Alice Stebbins Wells Lapd Museum

In honor of Women's History Month, Oxygen.com is highlighting the stories of women trailblazers in criminal justice.

Just months after becoming the first woman to serve as a Los Angeles police officer in 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was assigned her first high-profile case: a 17-year-old missing British heiress was in the City of Angels, allegedly transported from her native England by a controversial religious sect, the Pillars of Fire.

Wells was summoned to the office of the Los Angeles Police Chief Charles Sebastian, according to Los Angeles historian Nathan Masters.

“Mrs. Wells,” Sabastian said, “Here is your first big case.”

“I am ready, chief,” Wells said, according to Masters, author of Pillars of Fire.

Once assigned to the case, Wells was on the hunt for Lilly Maud Allen.

The leader of Pillars of Fire -- Alma White -- demanded and received full devotion from members, the so-called “Holy Jumpers.” They typically severed ties with family and gave their money to White.

“There is only one way to join us,” White said, according to Masters. “That is to turn in all your money and live with us.”

White and the original incarnation of Pillars of Fire are remembered today for their embrace of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s widely regarded as the only religious group in America to publicly endorse the white supremacists, according to the New York Times, though the church has long since denounced its racist past and remains an active, even thriving, congregation.

The church’s headquarters were just five minutes away from the home Wells, 37, shared with her husband Frank and her three children, Ramona, Raymond, and Gardner, according to Masters.

Wells infiltrated the group one night. She told a guard at the door that “she was in search of the truth and wanted to join and needed to learn more about it,” Masters wrote.

By the end of the night, she learned that Allen was living in New Jersey on an 81-acre Pillar of Fire compound. Wells notified authorities, but Allen remained with the group.

She was actually 26 years old, not a minor as her father had claimed to heightened concerns about her case, according to Masters. As an adult she could not be forced to return home.

Wells' road to the Los Angeles police force began with a petition signed by 35 people. She joined the force in September of 1910. For many years, she was regarded as the first woman to ever serve as a police officer in the U.S. But historians no longer believe that’s accurate.

The Department of Justice notes that Marie Owens was appointed to the Chicago police force in 1890. Lola Baldwin was sworn in as a police officer in Portland, Oregon in 1908.

Wells may not have been the nation’s first, but she was a game-changer.

“She was a pretty gutsy woman,” then-Det. Joan Wolf told the Los Angeles Times. “One of the reasons she became a sworn officer is that she went around the city with a petition and asked powerful figures to recognize her as a sworn officer.”

Wells had no gun, no uniform and most days kept her badge inside her pocketbook, according to Time magazine.

She had no problems going without a gun. “The weapon nature gave a woman was a scream,” she said. Wells also recommended using a hat stickpin.

“And do I carry weapons? No, indeed. That is something which I do not feel upon to do. I am very firmly convinced that under the right conditions a policeman would not have to carry a weapon at all,” Wells told the New York Times in 1912, two years after she joined the force. “But before the policeman can give up his gun and his stick, weapons must not be sold indiscriminately to citizens. The only reason now that a policeman requires a weapon is because the other fellow may have one, and the law must enforce its demands against all objection.”

Joining the Los Angeles Police Department was one of Wells many pioneering jobs. The former social worker was the first female pastor in Maine and Oklahoma, according to the LA Meekly Podcast.

“This is serious work and I do hope the newspapers will not try to make fun of it,” Wells said of her police job.

The numerous newspapers that covered her job were unsure what to call her. The Los Angeles Times initially called her “the first woman ‘policeman’” while also referring to her as an “officeress” and “Officerette Wells.”

Wells said she wanted to become a police officer to focus on crime prevention and that women would be better at that aspect of the job than men.

“I attend to the cases where women adults are concerned, where they are deserted, in trouble, or in doubt what to do. Much of this work is preventive, and I do not think the public realizes how much preventive work is done by the police department of every city,” Wells told the New York Times. “The more we study the problem of crime in the community, the more we are coming to realize the importance of preventive rather than punitive measures.”

Wolf told the Los Angeles Times that Wells’ focus on crime prevention was a radical approach to police work at that time.

While her male counterparts earned $102 a month, Wells was paid $75 a month. She encountered other forms of sexism on the job. Officers rode the trolley cars for free after showing their badge. After Wells flashed her badge, an outraged conductor accused her of "stealing her husband's badge and abusing its privilege," according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

She later used a badge that said: “Policewoman’s Badge Number One.”

A profile in the New York Times in December of 1912 begin with this:

“Even when Mrs. Alice Stebbins Wells fishes about in her bag and produces her policeman’s star for verification once can hardly believe that she is the famous first “policewoman” of Los Angeles. Scarcely five feet in height, slender, with a mild, almost timorous voice and a pair of very round blue eyes, Mrs. Wells presents an appearance about as formidable as that of a kitten.”

One of Wells' most publicized arrest was in 1911 when she charged a man with “ogling.”

By 1914, Wells was so high-profile that she starred in a movie about her life, The Policewoman. She spent a lot of time traveling and speaking across the country encouraging the hiring of more female officers.

Five years after Wells joined the force, women were working in police departments of dozens of American cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“Wrong ideas, bad blood, poorly nourished and strife, these things produce a large part of the tide endlessly sweeping into the precincts of the police. Under our present conditions much of the remedy for these things must be applied directly or indirectly by women. Insistence upon a single standard of morality, the elevation of domestic service to a plane equal to other respectable occupations and wide teaching of industrial arts and sciences, and other plain vital truths in our public schools can do much toward stemming the tide,” Wells told the New York Times.

She stayed with the police department for 30 years, retiring in 1940. During her decades-long career she founded the International Association of Police Women and became the first president of the California Women Peace Officers Association. She also founded the Pan-Pacific Association for Mutual Understanding in 1924.

In 1918, she convinced UCLA to create a training class for policewomen. She later served as historian for the LAPD.

Throughout her life she remained committed to adding more women to police departments.

“I am doing everything I can to make people see the need of women in the police department. But all one woman can do is very little. She can but find the needs and point the way,” Wells told the New York Times. “Where she leaves off many women may begin and do much toward the betterment of social conditions.”