In a class of 300, they were the only two black women. Now they’re top cops

Good long-read profile of some of the pioneering Black women in police forces:

Over breakfast, senior officers Ingrid Berkeley-Brown and Sonia Thomas are chatting about a Toronto movement that has taken on the police.

Black Lives Matter came into prominence here in the spring, and both officers saw the images of the group, led primarily by black women, camped outside Toronto police headquarters for two weeks. The group’s members were furious over the decision by the Special Investigations Unit not to charge the police officer who last year shot and killed Andrew Loku, 45, while he held a hammer.

Thomas and Berkeley-Brown are black women, friends who met at Ontario Police College in the mid-1980s. They’re straddling two realities.

“Black Lives Matter makes me a little bit uncomfortable,” Thomas admits.

“Not only am I a member of the black community (who) strives for justice, but I’m also a member of the police service they’re accusing of racism. So yeah, (I’m) a little bit uncomfortable.”

But Berkeley-Brown says she doesn’t share that discomfort.

“If they have areas of concern and get together to voice those concerns, I think that’s legitimate,” she says.

Berkeley-Brown, 55, and Thomas, 52, share a bond. In 1986, they were the only two black women in their largely white, male class of about 300 recruits at the police college in Aylmer, where they met.

Now a superintendent, Berkeley-Brown is the officer in charge at 21 Division for Peel Regional Police, and Insp. Thomas is second in command at 53 Division for Toronto police. They’re among the highest-ranking black female officers in Canada, and the friends climbed steep hills to get there.

….In an interview, James, 61, who retired as a detective, says she’s pleased with her own career. But there were low points.Particularly the time she served on an undercover unit four years into her career, when a fellow officer (senior in years of service but not rank) “went out of his way to make life difficult for me.”

While on duty together — sometimes alone on stakeouts — he would make comments like “‘I’d rather go out with a hooker than a black woman,’ or ‘if a black woman ever comes to my house it’s just to clean it,’” James recalls. She eventually switched units.

Thomas says it hasn’t happened often but she has always challenged inappropriate comments and behaviour by fellow Toronto officers.

Berkeley-Brown believes that given her own past work in the black community, and with the race and ethnic relations bureau for Peel police, her colleagues have known “what to say and not say in my presence.”

On the subject of racial profiling, Berkeley-Brown says she hasn’t ever witnessed her fellow officers in Peel engaging in it. Officers with that service patrol alone.

But when she hears over the Peel police radio that a member of the public has called in about black males seen at such-and-such address, Berkeley-Brown says her ears perk up and her first question is “So what? Are they doing anything wrong?”

She believes it’s important that the public — as well as the police — be informed about bias-free law enforcement.

Thomas no longer does frontline patrol work in a cruiser in Toronto, but when she did she questioned some of the instances black people were pulled over by her fellow officers.

“I mean challenging, ‘Well, why are we stopping this car? Give me a good reason why we’re stopping this car.’

“If there was a valid explanation, we would continue (investigating). If there wasn’t, we may have disengaged,” Thomas says.

Over the years numerous voices from legal circles, academia and visible minority groups have actively pushed to stamp out racial profiling, but Thomas believes it is not a common practice by police in the province.

“The reality is police services across Ontario hire from our communities, and like communities there is going to be some discrimination, there’s going to be some racism. We’re going to have officers who are racist, who racially profile. But I can tell you those numbers are so minimal,” Thomas says.

As for their lasting friendship, Berkeley-Brown and Thomas say part of it is based on respect for each other’s rise through the ranks.

They often meet up at police-related functions, including networking and professional development events put on by the Association of Black Law Enforcers.

Berkeley-Brown attended Thomas’s wedding in 1989, and Thomas was a guest at Berkeley-Brown’s wedding in 1994.

Nearly 30 years after that meeting in police college, they’re still bound by their love for the badge.

Source: In a class of 300, they were the only two black women. Now they’re top cops | Toronto Star

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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