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Penny Harrington (1942–2021), pioneering female police chief

by Linnea Crowther

Penny Harrington was the chief of the Portland, Oregon Police Bureau in the mid-1980s, becoming the first woman to lead a major U.S. city’s police department.

Breaking a glass ceiling

Harrington joined Portland’s police force in 1964, at a time when there were few women working in law enforcement. As she repeatedly sought promotions and was denied them, Harrington helped organize a successful unionization effort. Advocating for her own career, she got promotions, becoming the department’s first woman detective, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. In 1985, she was appointed police chief. Even as she made history and successfully piloted a neighborhood policing program, Harrington met resistance at every step. Unable to change the underlying culture of the force, she was asked to resign after 17 months.

After her time with the Portland Police Bureau, Harrington worked for the California State Bar’s director of investigations. She went on to found the National Center for Women & Policing, and she became an expert in women in law enforcement.

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Notable quote

“You don’t have to be rabid, screaming in the streets, tearing off your bra feminists. You just have to be smart and figure out what’s holding you back. It’s usually a stupid rule.” —from a 2020 interview on the podcast The 6% With NancyMD

Tributes to Penny Harrington

Full obituary: The Oregonian

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