Two black women defied the odds in 1986 to become top Canadian officers
Ingrid Berkeley-Brown and Sonia Thomas were the only two black women in their class at police college.
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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.
The women spoke to Torstar News Service at a time when both the Peel and Toronto police services are facing heavy criticism over accountability, the use of force — particularly against members of the black community — carding and racial profiling. Peel’s police chief came under attack last week from a community group over concerns about equity and diversity in the hiring of officers.
“I’m passionate about my community and I’m also passionate about my job as a police officer,” Thomas says, “and also passionate about ensuring that our officers are policing all of our communities with professionalism … policing with dignity and treating people with respect.”
Theirs is a story about two black women who defied the odds and earned their own respect.
“It’s always amazing when you realize the strength you didn’t think you have,” says Thomas. “I think that piece is important for other young women to hear.”
That first day at police college, Berkeley-Brown and Thomas were assigned to the same living area, by coincidence or by design.
“I went to my pod, and I was overjoyed when I saw Ingrid,” Thomas recalls. “Our rooms were literally right beside each other. We instantly took a liking to each other. We were similar, young, both very mature.”
The two went through all their training together, encouraging each other as they drove every weekend from Aylmer to the GTA in Berkeley-Brown’s new Hyundai Pony.
During Thomas’s training she had to get over her discomfort carrying a firearm. “There was a bit of uneasiness knowing you can take someone’s life at any moment,” she says. She also had to overcome extreme shyness.
Berkeley-Brown, meanwhile, who had previously been turned down twice by Toronto police for being too small, and lacking in confidence, failed the swimming component in part A of her training. (“I sunk like a rock,” she recalls, laughing.) Determined, she took lessons at the YMCA in Toronto during a break in her training, and passed the swimming when she returned to Aylmer for Part B.
In June 1987, both were sworn in as police officers. Berkeley-Brown was 26, and Thomas, 23.
Their training would only take them so far.
‘I thought I was going to pass out’
As a newly minted constable in Toronto, Thomas was permanently assigned to patrol 13 Division, the Toronto neighbourhood surrounding Eglinton Ave. W. and the Allen where she’d grown up. She knew the streets and back alleys, and got around easily on patrol.
But she may have known the area too well.
“Here I am, 23 years old, and I’m getting called to domestic disputes, and I’m going into the homes of people I may have known growing up in the neighbourhood, and I’m stopping people for traffic offences who I know.
“I just had to do my job,” Thomas says. “I never felt like I was put in a compromising position. My mother jokes that I’d give her a ticket if I had to.”
One of her early calls from her rookie year was a neighbour dispute. Several homes in the area have mutual driveways, so there are constant calls to police stemming from beefs over maintenance and who can park where.
When Thomas showed up to the call, a man in his mid- to late 30s was unconscious on the front lawn, blood oozing from a stab wound. Thomas was assigned to accompany him to hospital, while two other officers seized the knife and arrested the suspect, a neighbour whose elderly father was wailing in horror.
Later at the hospital, doctors worked furiously to try to save the victim, opening his chest surgically to manually pump his heart, Thomas looking on in astonishment.
“I thought I was going to pass out,” she says.
The victim died.
“I’d never seen a dead body prior to becoming a police officer, so that took some getting used to.”
Trauma in the countryside
When Berkeley-Brown was starting out in Peel region, the mostly rural area was a far cry from today’s urban sprawl. But like Thomas, she had scenes of trauma to deal with early in her career.
Berkeley-Brown’s first assignment was 22 Division, located in Brampton (now the site of Peel police headquarters) and the newbie drove around alone in her squad car, standard procedure for the service. One of her early radio calls was a crash involving a family in a car that was T-boned into a light standard by another driver.
Both vehicles were badly damaged, but the occupants seemed fine when police and paramedics showed up. Berkeley-Brown remembers the young girl seated in the T-boned car, about 10 and blond, wearing a summer dress.
“She was talking, alert and communicating. We treated the scene as a (personal injury) accident. There was no blood.”
But within an hour Berkeley-Brown was told the girl died in hospital.
“What impacted me was realizing she was talking, alert … but there was so much internal injury.”
Mom had doubts, mentor didn’t
Before joining as a cadet with the Toronto police, Sonia Thomas had been studying for three years at the University of Prince Edward Island, with eyes on a teaching career.
She decided not to complete those studies after riding on a TTC train one day during summer break from university in 1986, when she looked up to see an ad seeking candidates interested in a career as a Toronto officer.
“It was like a light bulb went on,” says Thomas, a tall woman with a sturdy build, who is single, with three adult children. “I thought that’s exactly what I need to do. I went to the recruiting office the next day.”
Toronto-born Thomas’s mother and father hailed from Jamaica. Her mother trained in England as a nurse, and her father served in the British army. They settled in Toronto in the early 1960s.
One of six children, Thomas grew up in the Oakwood and St. Clair neighbourhood, where her family was one of only three or four black families in the area.
She notes that growing up, “you didn’t see black police officers. When you did it was like a solar eclipse.”
Thomas’s mother expressed grave doubts when she learned of her daughter’s decision.
“She had concerns about how was I going to rise through the ranks in an organization that didn’t have people at the top that looked like us. Her other concern was how was I, as a female, going to get married” and be a police officer, Thomas says.
Those doubts would not deter Thomas. She did get married, in 1989, and moved up the ladder with the Toronto force.
The rise through the ranks came with help by senior black Toronto officers such as former deputy police chief Keith Forde, who worked behind the scenes to push police brass to hire and promote black and visible minority officers, and assign them to specialty units such as hold-up and homicide.
Forde, since retired, also played a key role encouraging Thomas to seek a promotion from staff sergeant to inspector, arguing she needed to put herself in positions with a significant say in decision making, and set an example for other black female officers to see that moving up is possible.
Thomas thought the timing was horrible. She was going through turmoil: a painful 2010 separation from her husband of 20 years — also a police officer — and her decision to move out of the family home with her three children.
But Forde told her he wanted to see women and minority officers at all ranks, and that she was an ideal candidate for promotion.
He kept saying “‘this is bigger than you,’” Thomas recalls.
“He knew about my situation and convinced me it was the best time to apply,” she adds. “At the time I didn’t think I had the strength of character to do that and deal with what I was dealing with in my personal life.”
She landed the job and is thankful Forde pushed her.
“Sometimes we go through personal tragedies and we don’t think we can move past them, or think we can succeed in other areas,” Thomas says. “There’s nothing further from the truth.”
Supt. Scott Gilbert, Thomas’s supervisor at 53 Division until his recent transfer, says “as a leader and a mentor and certainly as an inspector (Thomas is) head and shoulders above many.”
Thomas’s daughter Simone, 24, who is headed to the U.K. in September to study law, says her mother epitomizes what it means to have a good work-life balance.
When Simone and her two brothers were growing up they were into sports, and their mom would always be at their games and practices, Simone recalls. Simone played basketball, as did one of her brothers. Her other brother was in soccer.
“(Mom) would be there to drive us, even if it was 10 hours into the United States to a tournament. … I really don’t know how she did it, but she made it work,” Simone says. She calls her mom “a great role model for me.”
‘Give me a reason why we’re stopping this car’
Ingrid Berkeley-Brown was born in Guyana, the youngest of 11 children. Her father was a constable in Guyana who died when she was 6.
She doesn’t recall a lot about his job except his badge number — PC 4714 — and his uniform.
“I recall the khaki pants, his blue shirts and the silver buttons on his shirt that he polished,” she says.
Berkeley-Brown lived in the tough Jane and Finch community during her late teens and early 20s with her mother, brother and sister and a cousin. She was shocked when some boys from the tight-knit crew she hung out with in her teenage years at the Driftwood Community Centre later ended up behind bars for drug offences.
But she was determined to do what she could to steer youth, especially young black men, away from bad choices. She volunteered in Scarborough in the early 1980s, helping find community service placements for youth who had run afoul of the law.
During that time, Syd Young, a black Toronto officer, suggested she should consider a career as a cop.
When she applied the first time she was turned down by Toronto for being underweight at 105 pounds. (The requirement was 135.) She got married, had a son and reapplied five years later, but was turned down again, this time for lacking confidence. But this time she included the RCMP, the OPP and Peel police in her job search, and the latter took her on.
Berkeley-Brown, who didn’t see black women among fellow officers when she started in Peel, didn’t initially have a mentor there like Thomas had with Forde in Toronto. Berkeley-Brown faced challenges advancing up the ranks in a fiercely competitive environment.
But not unlike the swimming lessons she took after floundering during her police training days, she kept trying … and trying. It took three attempts to get promoted to sergeant, and three interviews before being named a staff sergeant. It took two attempts to be named inspector. But she made superintendent on her first try.
During those later attempts at promotions, she got support from senior officers in Peel.
“If I was unsuccessful for anything, I never once felt it was because I was black or female,” says Berkeley-Brown, a mother of two adult children, who is now married to a Peel constable. “If I’m unsuccessful, I do follow-up,” she adds later. “You tell me what I need to make it, and then I will do what I can to make it.”
Supt. Manny Rodrigues, a longtime colleague in Peel, says this openness to criticism has helped her improve at various stages.
“Any criticism she received, she suspected people wanted her to succeed,” he says. “I think it allowed her to gain the respect of the people she worked with rather quickly.”
Berkeley-Brown’s sister credits her determination and focus.
“She knows where she wants to go, and she is always wanting to move forward,” says Hazlon “Joy’’ Sargeant, 69, a retired Toronto elementary schoolteacher.
One trailblazing woman served as an inspiration to Berkeley-Brown and Thomas. Terry James was the first black female officer to walk the beat and perform modern-day policing duties for the Toronto service. James was on the force from 1980 to 2010.
While serving in Toronto, James came to know Thomas, and later Berkeley-Brown through the network of black officers in the GTA.
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.