Unbeknownst to Ruth Burritt, donning the police uniform in the 1960s would have a great impact on the Toronto of today.
The schoolteacher joined the job in 1961, among the first cohorts of women to serve as police officers in the city. The 81-year-old, who served for six years, recalled a very different reality than police women are accustomed to in 2016.
“I remember I was never allowed to eat lunch with the men in the guard room,” she said. “The men needed to be convinced that that we were valuable… We had to try hard but do it in a gentle way.”
She said many in the community were shocked to find a woman in uniform at their door but accepted her authority.
“They were stunned. They never heard of women police officers,” she said.
But strangers weren’t the only ones surprised.
“My mother was horrified. She couldn’t believe I would do such a job. She didn’t think it was befitting a young girl’s dignity,” she said.
Burritt recalls that, in police college, the women had to laugh off a training sergeant charged with teaching the class foot drills and how to take care of their shoes.
“While telling us one day how we should shine our shoes, he pulled out red silk ladies underwear to demonstrate.”
As part of Police Week celebrations, Burritt and daughter-in-law Sergeant Stephanie Burritt, of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, spent a day touring Communications, 23 and 52 Divisions, the Toronto Police Operations Centre and police headquarters.
Chief Mark Saunders welcomed Burritt to his office, urging her to sit in his chair and tell him about her career.
“We’ve got some amazing female officers and your daughter-in-law is one of them… There’s no doubt in my mind that part of the reason she stuck it through is because of examples like you,” Saunders said. “You have had an influence on the women of policing. Being one of the first, you have to blaze that trail for others, you make a reality that it is possible and others have succeeded because of you.”
During the ride-along, Burritt saw the vast difference in how officers communicate and the technology at their fingertips, whether radios on their belts or the computers in their scout cars.
“I had a little brass key in my pocket and, if I could find a call box, I could call for help from there,” she said.
Prior to joining the Service, Burritt taught at two elementary schools for six years.
“I thought teaching was dull and I wanted some spice in my life, which I found when I became a police officer,” said the octogenarian, who worked at the Women and Morality Bureaus and 22 Division.
Working undercover as a prostitute, she helped nab many johns in several sting operations in the 1960s.
Despite relishing law enforcement, the classroom was her calling and she spent three decades teaching, after leaving the Service.
“I enjoyed policing, but I felt as if I had done enough and it was time to go back to teaching,” said Burritt, who holds a university degree. “I drove a squad car and we carried small billy clubs and handcuffs, even though I was never called upon to use of any of them as far as I could remember.”
She said the highlight of her policing career was the General Proficiency and Best Student Awards she received after graduating from police college.
“I never really considered myself to be academically exceptional so, when I got that award, I was really proud,” added Burritt, who appeared in the 1961 documentary – Powder Puff Patrol – featuring the city’s female cops.
Of the six female officers in her graduating class, she was the last to leave the Service.
“Overall, there were about 50 of us in the organization when I joined and I felt we were breaking a barrier at the time,” she noted. “It was exciting to be part of something like that, even though the careers of many policewomen back then were short-lived because you had to be single and have no children if you wanted to remain as a uniformed cop.”
Sergeant Burritt, who has been with the Service since 1994, enjoyed the opportunity to be with her mother-in-law for a day.
“She blazed a trail for other female officers like me,” she said. “This is the least I could do to show my appreciation for what she did.”