Some 70 years ago, Alton Parker created history by becoming Windsor Police Service’s (WPS) first Black uniformed officer. That was almost 18 years before Toronto Police Service (TPS) hired Jamaican-born Larry McLarty in January 1960 as its first Black member.
While Blacks and other visible minorities make up nearly 20 per cent of the TPS, which boasts its second Black deputy chief in Jamaican-born Peter Sloly (Barbadian Keith Forde who retired two years ago was the first), their Windsor counterparts have just 13 African-Canadian civilian and sworn members among its 606 employees and the highest-ranking Black officer is a Sergeant – 22-year veteran, Wren Dosant – who was promoted in December 2009.
At a ceremony last Friday to mark the 70th anniversary since Parker broke the colour barrier on September 1, 1942, Acting Chief Al Frederick said his service is committed to reflecting the diverse communities it serves. He also promised that the organization will hold recruitment events in the city to promote the organization as an employer of choice.
“We are making a concerted effort to reach out to minorities and people of colour to attract them to our service,” said Frederick. “Diversity is a key to success. Diversity brings different perspectives. It’s not just about skin colour or race or religion. It’s about diversity of education and experience and we’re actively recruiting in all the diverse communities in Windsor. You have to get people interested and go to where they are.”
In February 2011, the WPS collaborated with its police service board and the Ontario Human Rights Commission to launch Project Charter with the aim of eliminating discrimination in the service’s policing and employment policies.
The project provides a unique opportunity for the service to look critically at its existing policies and programs and develop strategies to address human rights concerns and provide high quality, bias-free policing services and fair and equitable employment opportunities for officers and civilian staff. It also enables the service to show its commitment to employment policies and policing services that reflect and respond to the needs of the diverse communities it serves and protects.
“Our service is not reflective of the community,” Inspector Rick Facciolo acknowledged last May. “We’re looking at the provincial census of our city and comparing that to our organization. We’re looking at what kind of barriers might exist there that prevent people of various backgrounds from applying to the Windsor Police Service, and we want to eliminate those barriers.”
While trying to build a diverse workforce has benefits and is acceptable, one could only imagine the reaction when Parker was hired in an era when Blacks couldn’t rent apartments and they were not allowed in many restaurants or on golf courses.
Parker also made history nine years later when he was appointed Canada’s first Black detective. He was confirmed in the position two years later.
“When they promoted him, they also took a risk,” said Senior Const. Mike Akpata, one of the main organizers of last Friday’s celebration and a member of the Essex & Kent Scottish Regiment. “They could have said, ‘we’ve got him here so let’s just keep him in the corner’ as opposed to moving him forward and putting him in a position of authority. I am satisfied the Windsor Police Service started something in 1942, continued it in the 1950s when he was promoted and we’re working towards the day where questions about gender or race are not considered in policing.”
Born in Red Deer, Alberta to a father of Nigerian descent and an immigrant Guyanese mother, Akpata – who graduated from the University of Windsor in 1989 and has been with the service for the past 17 years — said Parker is an inspiration for him and the other Black officers.
“I take the flash that I wear very seriously,” said Akpata, who served in Afghanistan in 2007. “There’s a love of integrity that goes along with being a police officer. Everyone else that has worn that flash, I owe something to. When I find one that is good, beyond good, it is my responsibility to sing his song so that people know this is what their police department is about.”
Parker was also the Windsor Police Association’s first Black sworn member and the first African-Canadian member of a provincial police service to attend the Police Association of Ontario’s annual general meeting in Peterborough in 1949.
The mechanic-turned-pioneer law enforcement officer retired in 1970 after 28 years on the job and he remained an integral part of the community, co-hosting with his late wife, Evelyn, an annual summer party for kids and their families at Broadhead Park that was renamed Alton Parker Park in 1976. He passed away in February 1989 at age 81.
Parker has been recognized with a myriad of awards for a lifetime of distinguished service. They include the Order of Canada, the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, the Ontario Bravery Medal, a Harry Jerome Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Windsor. A year before he died, Parker was named the “Person of the Year” by the North American Black Historical Museum.
Retired federal politician and university professor, Dr. Howard McCurdy, said Parker deserved the accolades.
“He was a prominent leader in the Black community, especially within the Baptist church,” said McCurdy, the first tenured Black faculty member in Canada who was appointed to the Order of Ontario last January. “He was a significant and important role model in the 1930s, 40s and 50s…It’s important for any community to honour those who have made the kind of contributions that Alton Parker did. It draws a picture of the history of this community and the progress that it has made, and the struggles through which it had to go to make that progress.”
As part of the celebration, Parker’s family was presented with the keys to the city and the 400 block of Broadhead St. between Mercer St. and Howard Ave. was renamed Alton Parker Way.
Charles Peterson was the first Black WPS employee. Hired as a civilian mechanic in May, 1930, he became a Special Constable in 1954 and retired 13 years later. Peterson died in April 1983.
By RON FANFAIR