Chief Thomas G. Flanagan a true visionary about the role for women from racialized and Indigenous communities in policing

Posted On Thursday February 18, 2021
Cornelia Gillespie-Joseph, one of the two 2020 recipients of the Thomas G Flanagan S.C scholarship
Cornelia Gillespie-Joseph, one of the two 2020 recipients of the Thomas G Flanagan S.C scholarship

Thomas G. Flanagan, who served with the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) from 1951 to 1993, five of which were as Chief of Police, recognized the need to attract women from racialized or Indigenous communities to choose a career in policing.

His grandson, Avery Flanagan, a Sergeant with OPS, calls his grandfather his hero and he remembers being told, as a teenager, about the changes his grandfather said were needed.

“I’m third generation police officer in my family,” says Avery, whose three uncles also worked at OPS. One of them, Inspector Pat Flanagan, still does.

“My grandfather said a shift needed to happen, that a police service has to be inclusive in order to serve everyone in the community. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was a true visionary. We’re still having this conversation almost 30 years later.”

In 1993, Chief Flanagan started a scholarship for women from Indigenous or racialized communities pursuing an education in a law enforcement-related field.

The first recipient of the scholarship was Debbie Miller. She grew up in Ottawa in Community Housing.

“Policing wasn’t a career I was considering,” Debbie recalls, “instead, policing found me.”

While attending Carleton University, she was looking for a summer job when she came across a job posting by the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations (NCARR), who was helping racialized community members get opportunities in policing.

“The job exposed me to policing from another perspective. I was intrigued with what I saw and realized that I had many of the skills needed to be a successful officer. What stood out however, was that there was nobody that looked like me within the service”.  

Debbie worked as a civilian with OPS before becoming one of the first five black women hired as police officers in 1994. 

“Coming into a male dominated profession as a woman was daunting, even more so as a Black woman. Not only did I have to deal with being a woman, I had to fit into an institution that never had anyone that looked like me in the role of an officer.  Unlike my white female colleagues who already existed in this organization, I was breaking new ground and had to somehow find my place in the OPS”.

Debbie quickly saw how her background and colour were a strength. “There are a lot of trust issues between police and the black community,” she says. “When you are part of the community you’re serving, they see someone familiar they can relate to.”

“When you reflect the community you are serving, it helps to ease fear, build trust and allow for honest conversations.”

Although numbers are still low for women from racially diverse backgrounds, women are represented in different positions and ranks within the police service. It shows that the work to remove systemic barriers in in progress, however it is important to continue the work so the OPS can truly reflect the Ottawa community.

Over the span of her 27-year career, she has faced challenges, but there’s also been opportunity for her to build relationships and break down barriers, within the organization and in the community.

“Today, we see women of different ethnicities holding different positions and ranks within the police service. It shows we’re removing barriers that have existed for hiring and promotions and women from racialized backgrounds can see themselves having a career here.”

Debbie is the second-highest ranking black female officer within OPS. As an Inspector, she is proud of the work she has done to pave the way for racialized women joining policing today.

“I am proud to be a police officer. I’m grateful to the late Chief Thomas Flanagan for being a visionary and recognizing the importance of having racialized women as part of the OPS. My message to other racialized and Indigenous women: ‘we have a uniform waiting for you too’.” 

One such person hoping to have a career with OPS is Cornelia Gillespie-Joseph, one of the two 2020 recipients of the Thomas G Flanagan S.C scholarship.

Like Debbie, Cornelia never considered a job in policing. “There were a lot of preconceived notions about police passed down from childhood influences, including family, friends and the media.”

At 5 ft 2 inches (157 cm ) tall and 120 pounds (54 kg), she thought she was too small to be a police officer.

But after spending a summer in the Youth In Policing Initiative where she saw first-hand how officers do their jobs, she realized there’s so much more to policing than your size.

“I have an opportunity to change things for the better between police and racialized communities,” says Cornelia. “When I look at the OPS today, I see myself. There’s a lot of diversity.”

Cornelia graduated from Police Foundation studies at Algonquin College in 2020. She plans to put the scholarship towards her undergraduate degree in Human Rights and Social justice, with the goal of becoming a police officer.

“I look forward to helping youth,” she says. “I think my life experiences enable me to relate to what they are going through and give them advice to help them make good decisions.”

For more information about the 2021 Thomas G. Flanagan S.C. $2000. scholarship award go to https://www.ottawapolice.ca/en/careers-and-opportunities/Bursaries-and-Scholarships.aspx.

To learn more about the hiring process, go to  https://www.ottawapolice.ca/en/careers-and-opportunities.aspx.