The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) celebrated last week four decades since the hiring of its first female officer.
Sergeant Vanessa Leslie has spent half of that time with the organization as one of the earliest Black recruits.
The Port Perry Investigation & Enforcement Bureau unit commander joined the provincial law enforcement agency four years after graduating from York University with a psychology degree.
Leslie, who attended Francis Liebermann Catholic High School in Scarborough, was attracted to policing at an early age.
“The Toronto Police’s Charles O. Bick training college was close by and I used to see police officers all the time,” she said. “I did some policing research in Grade 13 and figured that was a career I would like to try.”
The plan to apply to Toronto Police straight out of high school was quickly scuttled when Leslie’s mother caught wind of her daughter’s idea.
“She was not happy with my choice and insisted I go and get a degree,” said Leslie. “I listened to my mother and I am glad I did that.”
In her last year in university, Leslie wrote a paper that addressed the cognitive interview technique, which is a method of interviewing eyewitnesses and victims about what they remember from a crime scene.
“As part of that project, I went to the Ontario Police College and looked at the methods they used at the time to conduct their interviews,” she said. “That put my head back in policing.”
After four years with the city’s employment & social services agency, Leslie applied to the OPP.
“By then, I had decided I didn’t want to be in Toronto, but I didn’t want to go quite federal,” she said. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and at the same time see the province and the OPP afforded that opportunity.”
Hired eight months after submitting her application, Leslie launched her policing career with the Perth detachment. After nearly three years, she was transferred to the frontline casino enforcement unit in Windsor.
“At that time, there wasn’t a casino in Detroit, so there were a lot of Americans coming over, many of them of the younger drinking age, so it was fairly busy,” she said. “I was there for a year before coming to Toronto with the Gaming Commission, which has an investigation bureau here. I did due diligence and corporate and charity investigations and things like that for three years.”
Unsuccessful in her first attempt to become a sergeant, Leslie attributed the failure to the brief time she spent on the road as a uniformed frontline officer.
“Even though I had detective constable status, I went back to uniform and worked in Caledon for six years in various positions as a frontline officer, police issues co-ordinator and in the crime and sex assault units,” she said. “I was also seconded to recruiting which was a big eye-opener to the hiring process and trying to encourage diverse groups to apply.”
Twelve years ago, OPP Bound was launched to attract members of diverse groups. The program includes presentations and mentorship sessions with key members of the OPP and civilian employees from diverse backgrounds who share their experiences, answer questions and talk about their careers.
The daughter of Dominican and St. Lucian immigrants, Toronto-born Leslie spoke about some of the challenges that the OPP faces in attracting diverse members.
“Culturally, it can be isolating going into some of those towns in the province,” she said. “If you try to hire, let’s say an Asian officer, that individual will want to know how their language and competency skills will be used in some of those places where there are little or no minorities. That’s the big drawback when it comes to recruiting minorities.”
Promoted in 2008, Leslie was posted to the Professional Standards Bureau before being assigned to her current position two years ago.
Despite some challenges as a Black female officer, Leslie has relished her time with the provincial law enforcement agency.
“To have the opportunity to do a lot of jobs in the same career and travel around the province has been really fulfilling,” said the former Fort York Army reservist.
As one of just two female Black sergeants, Leslie plans to move up the promotional ladder.
With nearly 1,800 officers – almost one-third of the OPP complement of officers – eligible to leave by 2020, the organization is on the cusp of a significant period of retirements.
“I see her as being ready to take on the challenge of the next rank based on her performance as a frontline sergeant and detective sergeant,” said Superintendent Rohan Thompson. “She’s very knowledgeable, hard-working and dedicated.
Laura Emery made history in August 2005, becoming the organization’s highest-ranking Black female officer.
Born in Toronto to a Black father and Cree mother, she was adopted by a Dutch couple and spent her first eight years in the Greater Toronto Area before relocating to Barrie.
The Georgian College graduate taught briefly before pursuing a law enforcement career. She joined the Alliston Police Service in 1988 which disbanded four years later and was taken over by the OPP.
A former auxiliary and court officer, Emery is assigned to the Nottawasaga detachment.