When Catherine Johnson left the Minneapolis Police Department last winter to take a job across the street with Hennepin County, the news was greeted with a weary sense of resignation by some of her female colleagues. And not just because Johnson's 20-plus years of experience was walking out the door with her.

Before leaving, the former precinct inspector had been a member of an increasingly exclusive club: women who reached the department's upper echelons. And with the thinning ranks of female supervisors and detectives, reversing that trend may be difficult.

Today, two of the department's top 20 posts are held by women: Kathy Waite, inspector of the Fifth Precinct, and Cmdr. Melissa Chiodo, who heads Internal Affairs. Women make up three of the force's 44 lieutenants and about 18 percent of sergeants — 36 out of 205 — according to department records.

The city's current top cop, Medaria Arradondo, has said that diversity, both ethnic and gender, remains a problem to be overcome if the department hopes to regain the trust of communities scarred by past police actions. Overall, 124 of the department's 888 sworn officers are women — roughly the same number it had in 2005, when the force had about 100 fewer officers. Arradondo said that as chief, he has the right to choose his own commanders but has pledged to move women into higher ranks.

"Absolutely, I need to do more, and I'm committed to doing more," he said.

Even with a recent increase in hiring of female officers, women still accounted for only 12 percent of full-time cops, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the higher the rank, the fewer women there are. About 10 percent were supervisors and just 3 percent of chiefs were women in 2013, the latest year for which full data are available. But attitudes have started to change, observers say. Several large cities, including Detroit, Dallas and Portland, Ore., recently hired female chiefs amid a national push toward policing reform. In Minnesota, women make up 17 of the state's more than 360 chiefs, according to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

Arradondo has asked Chiodo to put together a work group of female officers from every level of the department to study barriers to recruiting, hiring, mentoring and retaining women. One question they hope to answer is why so few women are taking promotional exams. He said he is also considering challenging a decades-old law that limits the number of deputy chiefs he can appoint, in order to bring more women into the front office.

"The Minneapolis Police Department right now is probably about 80 percent white male," he said at an event last week. "Women, particularly, are not entering this profession in the same numbers as they were in the '70s, '80s and '90s — I can't tell you why and with the women leadership in the department, I ask them constantly."

Janeé Harteau, who in 2012 became the city's first female chief, said her successor must take a deliberate approach to grooming the next generation of female leaders.

"With Minneapolis specifically, I am disappointed and concerned that the current lieutenants and commanders — people who could've been promoted — are not being put into appointed positions," she said in a recent interview.

Johnson is just the latest high-ranking woman to leave in the past year. Harteau was ousted last year amid fallout from the Justine Ruszczyk Damond shooting, just months after former Assistant Chief Kris Arneson retired. And Waite nearly left earlier this year after being a finalist for the Blaine police chief job.

In Minneapolis, women first started joining the force in significant numbers in the late 1980s. But it wasn't until 1994 that the department saw its first female inspector, Christine Morris, who was tapped to run the Fourth Precinct — following stints in the domestic abuse, weapons and homicide units. In the years that followed, a handful of women cracked the department's front office. But the department's old boys' club image persisted, fueled by a string of lawsuits accusing the brass of turning a blind eye to blatant sexism and harassment.

That past made Harteau's appointment all the more significant, according to University of Minnesota sociology Prof. Michelle Phelps.

"I think it's powerful to have the first openly LGBT female police chief," said Phelps, who has studied the intersection of gender and policing. "That's a powerful statement about where policing is headed and who people should think of when they think of police."

According to Harteau and others, one explanation for the lack of female representation is that some of those eyeing senior ranks are caught in a career Catch-22: To be up for promotion, officers are expected to gain experience in various aspects of police work, sometimes requiring them to accept more demanding assignments or work overnight. But many female officers, who still tend to be primary caregivers, are less willing to pursue potentially career-boosting positions that take them away from their families.

At the same time, a lack of female commanders has meant fewer women are role models and mentors for younger cops.

Arradondo's backers in the department say that in his brief time as chief he has named several women to top jobs. Last fall, he tapped Chiodo to run Internal Affairs and recently promoted Katie Blackwell, an experienced and respected homicide investigator, to lieutenant. Women are also in charge of the department's crime lab and the Violent Crimes Apprehension Team, a hard-charging squad that patrols for violent criminals carrying weapons.

The timing of job openings are partly to blame, the chief's supporters argue, saying he "inherited" a limited pool of female lieutenants and sergeants — who are generally required to have at least five years of experience before being eligible for promotion — from which to pick.

Efforts to diversify

The department has over the years imposed rules intended to root out overt discrimination while opening up hiring of female officers. Last year, officials released a recruitment video titled "Women of the MPD," intended to dispel the notion that a career in law enforcement precludes anyone from also raising a family. And they're also considering scrapping a fitness test for recruits, which some say is an inaccurate measure of the job's physical demands and discriminates against female candidates.

The St. Paul Police Department has a better record of promoting female officers. A woman serves as the assistant chief, another is a deputy chief, and the department has seven women among its 28 commanders, according to recently released records. It also has a higher percentage of female sergeants than Minneapolis.

Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Goodman said the department's recruiting woes are indicative of a bigger problem in the city: attracting and holding female employees. She referred to a survey showing that Minneapolis is projected to fall well short of its target of having women occupy 45 percent of its workforce by 2022. It now stands at 29 percent.

The same survey from 2016 projected that the percentage of women in sworn positions, like police officers and firefighters, will drop to 9 percent in 2022, from 16 percent in 2009. The report also found that between 2009 and 2016, about three-quarters of all promotions in those jobs went to men — more than half went to white men, while only 6 percent went to women of color.

"I have great respect for the chief and his ability to make decisions about who he picks on his team, but it is surprising to me," Goodman said recently.

Even with the cultural shift around policing, many women are wary of going into what remains a male-dominated profession, according to Arneson, who served as Harteau's No. 2 before retiring last spring.

"Recruiting may be affected — potential women candidates may look at the fact that there are no women or very few women in leadership roles, and decide to go somewhere else, like St. Paul," said Arneson. "There were people of lower rank that were promoted above at least two women who had tremendous experience."

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter:@StribJany