Becoming a senior officer wasn’t something that Inspector Sonia Thomas envisioned when she joined the Service in 1986.
“There wasn’t anyone that looked like me in that position, so I didn’t expect to get there,” she said.
It didn’t help that Thomas didn’t see many Black officers while growing up in the Oakwood Ave. and St. Clair Ave. W. neighbourhood and her mother – trained as a nurse in England – expressed concern when she learned her daughter was joining Toronto Police.
“She had concerns about how I was going to rise through the ranks in an organization that didn’t have people at the top that looked like us,” said Thomas, who made history in 2010 by becoming the Service’s first Black female senior officer
The trailblazer retires on March 28.
Much has changed in Thomas’ 33 years with the Service.
Toronto Police has invested heavily in diversifying the organization and creating an inclusive environment.
“The Service talked about that, but we just didn’t see much of it until around the mid-1990s,” said Thomas. “I am happy that I am leaving the organization in a better place but there is more work to be done.”
Home for the summer after her third year of psychology & sociology studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Thomas saw an advertisement for police officers while riding the subway.
“It was like a light bulb went on,” said the then-aspiring teacher. “The next day, I went to the recruiting office.”
The Oakwood Collegiate Institute graduate started her law enforcement career at 13 Division in the Primary Response Unit.
“That was my neighbourhood and I knew the streets and back alleys,” she said. “Here I am, 23 years old, and I am getting called to domestic disputes and going into homes of people I knew growing up in the neighbourhood. I am also stopping people who I know for traffic offences. I just had to do my job. Never did I feel I was in a compromising position.”
Thomas worked at headquarters in the Recruitment office and at 54 Division before being promoted to Sergeant in 2001 and Staff Sergeant six years later.
When now-retired Deputy Chief Keith Forde was appointed the College’s unit commander in January 2003, he recruited Thomas – born in Toronto to Jamaican parents – to work for him.
She said that the four-year assignment at the College between 2003 and 2007 was the highlight of her distinguished career.
“As a sergeant, in the Recruitment section, I had the opportunity to train and work with new recruits that came into the organization during that time,” Thomas said. “That was really fulfilling in a sense that I was able to help groom them for their new career. Over the years, I have heard from many of them about the impact I had on them.”
Const. Sinderela Chung joined the Service during Thomas’s tenure at the College.
“As one of the instructors, she was always professional in the way she conducted herself,” said the Talent Acquisition Team member. “She commanded a lot of respect, but she also gave respect. Every single interaction I have had with her since then has been very positive. She is always there offering advice.”
For three years, Const. Jen Sidhu worked with Thomas at the College.
“Working alongside her has been impactful,” said the Media Relations officer. “She is and always has been a shining example of leadership and compassion while displaying a very positive attitude.”
It was Forde who encouraged Thomas to apply for the senior rank position.
“At the time I was going through some turmoil in my life,” she said. “He knew about my situation and convinced me it was the best time to apply. At the time, I didn’t think I had the strength of character to compete in that process and manage what I was dealing with in my personal life.”
Chief Mark Saunders, who has known Thomas for almost 30 years, said she contributed immensely to the Service.
“What I like about Sonia is that she’s very consistent as a person and a leader,” he said. “She understood the importance of looking after her people. By that, I mean she wasn’t giving people a green card or anything like that. It’s holding people accountable and been consistent in your messaging and also supporting them.”
Saunders worked with Thomas at the Duty Desk just over a decade ago.
“That was my only direct relationship with her and, by far, she was one of the best Staff Sergeants that I had on the floor at the time when I got to see her showcasing her skills and abilities in phenomenal ways,” he said. “She really is an amazing person when it comes to caring for people and helping mentoring and making people stronger.”
Supt. Shaun Narine, who was the Unit Commander at 53 Division where Thomas is assigned, spoke glowingly of the retiring officer.
“Sonia is caring, compassionate and extremely dedicated to the community and the Service,” he said.
Thomas said she’s going to miss the people she has worked with in the last three decades.
“My management style is about people,” she noted. “So that is what I am going to miss the most. After 32-and-a-half years, I have built great friendships and relationships with so many people in the organization. I will miss the people more than the process.”
With Thomas gone, Stacy Clarke – who was promoted to Inspector in January – is the Service’s only Black female senior officer.
“I have passed the torch on and it is in capable hands,” said Thomas, who was a police prosecutor for three years up until 2015. “I have a good relationship with Stacy and I have no doubt she will continue to rise in the organization.”
Clarke is indebted to Thomas and other trailblazers for paving the way for her.
“I don’t take the promotion lightly,” she said. “I am standing on the shoulders of trailblazers and I now have a responsibility to lift as I climb. The promotion also proves that anything is possible.”
Meeting retired officer Terry James 22 years ago was Clarke’s first encounter with a Black female Toronto Police officer.
Thomas said James, who retired in 2010 after 30 years on the job, was also her role model.
“Terry carried herself with such dignity and grace,” she said. “I really appreciate the fact that she opened the door for me and many others.”
Though she’s retiring from policing, Thomas will be active in the community. She’s plans to work independently as a mediator.
“I feel that the skills and abilities I have attained while in policing have prepared me for that role,” she said. “It’s something that I think I am well suited for and I look forward the next stage of my life.”