There were times, no doubt, when Terry James questioned why she made the bold step to become a big city cop. She however stayed the course and three decades later has turned in her badge, leaving the Toronto Police Service (TPS) more accommodating and inclusive than when she joined in the summer of 1980.
Just 98 women were with the organization back then and she was among 10 female officers in her recruiting class, making it the largest intake at the time. James, however, stood out as she was the service’s first Black female recruit.
“When I joined the force, I was young and naïve,” recalled the trailblazer who retired last month after 30 years, three months and 13 days on the job. “But very early on, I knew it was not going to be easy. The city then was nothing like it is today. I and many other female officers were subjected to bias.”
Things have changed.
In July 2001, James and two other female officers made history, becoming the first Black women to be promoted to sergeant. One of those officers – Sonia Thomas – is set to become the organization’s first Black female inspector.
Retiring as a Court Services Risk Management Unit detective, James acknowledges she made her biggest contribution to the organization when she was a recruitment supervisor.
“I recruited, I mentored and I encouraged many individuals who are doing well,” she said. “My work is complete and I have done my very best.”
Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Interim Provincial Commander Noreen Alleyne joined colleagues and friends in paying tribute to James. She, however, said she’s disappointed that James is not leaving the organization as a senior officer.
“Whenever I asked her why she was not further up the chain, she would say she was told that she was not yet ready for that promotion,” Alleyne recalled. “My deepest regret is that she was never yet ready. I take that personally. I could never understand the diversity agenda that tells people they have to be ready when I see the ‘unready’ moving rapidly up the chain. I hope that those of you who have joined the force recently understand she has paved the way for you to be ready sooner.”
Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) founding president and Mimico Correctional Centre Superintendent Dave Mitchell recalled the many initiatives that he and James worked on to improve the relationship between the police and the community and the passion with which she encouraged young people to pursue law enforcement careers, while TPS deputy chief Peter Sloly said the retired officer is a woman of great courage and a groundbreaker.
“It was a difficult enough job for anybody, even so for a person of colour and a woman,” said Sloly. “She did not only have the courage to go through the door first, but she had the ability to fashion a tremendous career…She has been a coach, mentor and adviser to me and I learned a lot from her including the ability to balance your passion for professionalism with your family life.”
TPS board chair Dr. Alok Mukherjee and Ontario Health Promotion & Sports Minister Margarett Best recognized James’ commitment to the TPS and the community.
“We pay tribute to an individual whose dedication and commitment to encourage will forever leave its mark not only on law enforcement but in communities at large,” said Best. “Your long and distinguished career certainly merits you this evening’s recognition.”
James came to Canada from Grenada at age 13 and worked as a sales assistant at a manufacturing company before becoming a police officer. She conceived the idea for the organization’s Black History Month event which has been celebrated annually since 1994.
Part of the proceeds from James’ retirement party will go to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the ABLE scholarship fund.