Riding in the back of a yellow police scout car as a 10-year-old boy, in search of his stolen bike, Staff Superintendent Mario Di Tommaso got a whole new view of the world.
Then a newcomer to Canada, living on Henderson Ave. in Little Italy, an officer had come out to take a report and took him on a drive to look for his prized possession.
“I had an officer who showed up from 14 Division who cared deeply about the emotions of a 10-year-old boy. And that instilled in me the sense of community service and how seriously that officer took my emotions and feelings. That was the very first event that sparked that little idea of wanting to be an officer to serve my community,” said the Campagna-born Di Tommaso, before accepting an award for his service to the community.
He was among ten police officers and civilians of Italian descent, from across the Greater Toronto Area, honoured at the National Congress of Italian Canadians Guardians Beyond the Call Gala for law enforcement leadership and community service.
Di Tommaso joined the Service in 1980, three years after the death of Emmanuel Jacques, a shoeshine boy who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered.
“It solidified in me that I wanted to try to help my community by ridding society of those who prey on the most vulnerable,” said Di Tommaso, who went on to some of his proudest work in the Homicide Squad.
His first assignment, in 14 Division, patrolling the landmarks where he grew up, the Monarch Tavern, Bitondo Pizzeria, and St. Francis of Assisi Church where his parents, his father a bricklayer, his mother working in a seed factory, started a new life for their family.
“What a journey. For me, it’s been phenomenal to be immersed in the Italian community and serve the Italian community so it’s been an honour for me,” said Di Tommaso, who returned to lead 14 Division as a superintendent.
He said coming to Canada as an immigrant also shaped him.
“There were difficulties for a young person of Italian heritage in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon community in the late 60s, early 70s. I grew and learned from those experiences and understand what a lot of newcomers to Canada are going through in present-day society. I, too, was a new immigrant 50 years ago,” he said.
Each recipient, Di Tommaso included, spoke about their parents who instilled in them that hard work would be rewarded, to love and respect their family, and to be present in their community.
Parking Enforcement Officer Antonio Molinaro was also recognized with a Guardian Beyond the Call award.
He said he grew up among family and friends who had a stake in his life.
“Friends of family were mentors to me. Everyone and everybody was there to help you,” said Molinaro, who has three boys and another child on the way.
“My grandfather taught me. He told me, there is a reason God gave us two hands. One hand is to protect yourself and help yourself. The other hand is to help and protect the community. When you clap them together, what a beautiful sound it makes. I’ve always lived by those words,” he said.
He was honoured to be among the recipients of the award.
“When you get recognized for your work, you get a sense of fulfillment,” Molinaro said, a 17-year veteran who works as an area supervisor in 12 and 14 Divisions.
“When you get to know the community. one-on-one, they look at you differently, you’re not just a parking enforcement officer, they trust you. I go into difficult situations but, when they see who I am, they know I’m there to help them,” Molinaro said.
Chief Mark Saunders noted that each recipient spoke about the importance of family, the ones they came from and their own spouses and children, which he noted is something to be proud of and emulated.
“It is your leadership and your actions and the values you are instilling that move the next generation forward,” said Saunders.
He was also heartened that civilians were being recognized alongside officers.
“Community safety involves all hands on deck, so thank you so much for recognizing that,” he said to organizers.
Premier Doug Ford also heralded the sacrifices that the families of police officers endure with loved ones serving at all hours of the day and when least expected.
“Being a police officer isn’t just about upholding the law, it’s about giving back to your community, showing leadership in your community,” Ford said. “When you’re a police officer, you’re a police officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Former Toronto Chief Julian Fantino said Guardians Beyond the Call was born to give the Italian community mentors as well as highlight policing as a career choice for young people. He said that those being recognized demonstrate the values that it takes to serve a community, something he always tried to impress on new recruits.
“I used to say to them, in your darkest days, and there are those along the career path that one pursues in policing. There are three questions that you always have to remember and be guided and impressed on your heart and soul. Who are you? Your background as a family person, your good name, your parents. You are somebody. That’s not ever to be discounted. What are you here to do? Why did you come to this profession? You have to ask yourself. And, finally, who are you here to serve? Forget about the books and policies and procedures, those are the things that will guide you.”
He said police officers can’t serve well without their civilian counterparts as well as the support of their families.
“No police officer on the street can survive without the network of civilian support to do their job,” he said. “Without our families, no police officer could succeed in the pursuit of their career.
Outgoing Italian Consulate General Giuseppe Pastorelli and Silvana Tibollo, president of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, and MPP and Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Michael Tibollo, joined in the celebration.
Guardians Beyond the Call recipients:
Peel Regional Police Service
- Elena Murphy, Report Taker at 21 Division
- Inspector Raffaela D’Angela, Duty Inspectors Office
Niagara Regional Police Service
- Jane Cocco, civilian employee
- Staff Sergeant Mario Lagrotteria, Prisoner Management Unit
Durham Regional Police Service
- Carmela McFadyen, Enforcement Clerk in Criminal Intelligence Branch
- Detective Mike Baggio, Robbery Unit
York Regional Police Service
- Alicia Rossi, Forensic Identification Assistant
- Constable Armando Pecchia, of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Unit
Proceeds from the event were donated to Victim Services Toronto, an agency that provides immediate crisis response to people affected by crime and sudden tragedies.