Debbie Miller is Ottawa's fourth Black senior police officer
May 4, 2019
As a uniformed Debbie Miller was recently leaving the United Way Ottawa building where she’s a board director, a woman ran towards the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officer who was heading to her car.
“I just want to tell you how proud I am of seeing a female Black officer,” said the stranger. “I have never seen one around here.”
“Thank you,” replied a welcoming Miller. “But I have been here for 25 years.”
The woman’s observation is understanding since there are about 20 sworn Black female members among the nearly 1,400 member uniformed staff.
Miller is working hard to change that narrative, especially now that’s she’s an Inspector following Isobel Granger who, in March 2018, became the Service’s first Black female senior officer.
“We have to go out into the community and talk to women, including visible minorities,” she said. “We have to explain to them the intricacies of becoming a police officer and the benefit and importance of having diversity at the table.”
With women making up approximately 11 per cent of police candidates in the province and about half of them failing the physical fitness testing required to apply for the job, attracting women to the profession is challenging.
To become an officer, candidates must do the Physical Readiness Evaluation for Police (PREP) test that most Ontario police services require their applicants to pass.
“We find that women struggle with this test,” said Miller who was the Staff Sergeant in charge of the Outreach, Recruitment & Resourcing Unit that’s dedicated to actively recruiting qualified candidates that are representative of Ottawa’s diverse community. “We hold workshops so they can come in, test the equipment and learn what they need to improve on. They are also mentored and an outreach team was created that is making a difference as they go into different communities, engage people and help identify suitable candidates.”
A dedicated outreach team created in 2005 was dissolved three years later after a decision was made to spread its responsibilities among all officers. The program was re-launched after consultations with community groups.
“With many officers retiring across the country, there is a need now to re-populate Services,” Miller pointed out. “This generation does not have policing at the top of professions they are considering pursuing. So I came up with a plan that would allow others to see themselves within our Service and to recognize the profession as an honourable one.”
In a bid to attract more visible minorities and candidates from outside the city, Ottawa Police is showcasing the nation’s capital as a place to work, play, invest and raise a family.
“Instead of just recruiting for our Service, why not recruit for the City of Ottawa?” said Miller. “Hopefully, that would be appealing to police officers working in other places in the province who are seeking a change of scenery and are prepared to do a lateral move and also Blacks and other visible minorities who might not have thought of policing as a career. We have also partnered with Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group because sports is a universal language and we figure that’s a great way to engage the community. We have hosted information sessions at football games and created a video to promote our Service as an excellent career choice.”
She learnt of the promotion through an early morning phone call last month from outgoing Chief Charles Bordeleau.
“He called on my work phone and said, ‘Mrs. Miller, congratulations on your promotion’,” the Afro-Caribbean Cotillion program member recounted. “I was ecstatic. That was the best news I had received in a very long time. I view this as a community promotion and I could not have gotten where I am without the support of family, friends and colleagues.
Miller, who manages a program that allows OPS members to mentor Boys & Girls Club members, was on the promotion list for several months.
“There are other people in the pool who were promoted ahead of me and I was thinking, “When is my turn going to come,” the Crossroads Children’s Centre board member said. “It was like a heavy weight was lifted off my shoulder when I got the good news. This has been a long journey, but it was well worth the wait to get to this point. In fact, I now feel that I am at the start of another journey since there’s going to be a lot of expectations. I have the ability now to influence decisions and make them in some cases.”
Miller said that Bordeleau, who retired on May 4 after a 35-year police career, is leaving a legacy that demonstrates the importance and benefits of a diverse Service.
“He has worked hard to make significant changes and build community trust,” she pointed out. “We now have a voice at the table where decisions are made and I am proud to be part of an organization that proudly serves their community.”
Raised in Ottawa Community Housing with a twin-brother and two older siblings by a single mother – Phyllis Beerensender -- who migrated from Jamaica, Miller – who came to Canada at age three -- has been with Ottawa Police since 1992 as a summer student through the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations.
“That was my introduction to policing as I was assigned to several units, including break-and-enter and the youth office,” the part-time Algonquin College Police Foundations program lecturer since 2013 said.
While pursuing undergraduate studies in Sociology & Anthropology at Carleton University, Miller did an internship at OPS and was the first recipient of the Thomas G. Flanagan Scholarship the same year she graduated from university in 1993. Awarded in memory of the late OPS Chief, the honour is bestowed on racialized females who have an interest in policing.
“Originally, I was thinking about teaching or working in the social services field as career options,” she said. “But there was nobody that looked like me in the Service back then and that made me realize I could be a police officer. My goal was to work in the community and give back and it occurred to me that policing offers a great opportunity to do that.”
Trinidad & Tobago-born Godfrey “Terry” Friday, the OPS’s second Black officer who retired in 2001 as the first Black Inspector, hired Miller, Granger, Stephanie Blades, Tami Casselman and Leslie Maley in 1994.
They were the Service’s first Black female hires.
“Debbie was an 18-year-old going to university and working part-time in our General Office,” said Friday who resides in the United States. “I pulled her aside one day and asked her what she wanted to do. I saw something special in her that you really can’t put your finger on. There was something that stood out about that group that made me know they would shine in policing. The reason I brought in five of them was that I figured they would need support. They were carefully handpicked by me and I am seeing the rewards. I am delighted and I feel very good about Isobel and now Debbie.”
Blades, who was awarded the Police Exemplary Service Medal in 2015, was promoted to Sergeant while Casselman is a Constable.
Maley was shot in the leg in her third week on the job when she and her partner stumbled on a bank robbery in progress. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she retired in 2010 and volunteers with the Badge of Life Canada.
Very early in her career, Miller’s resolve was tested.
Responding to a break-and-enter call in March 1995, Wayne Johnson – who officers later learnt was the father of the caller’s children – took off running when confronted by police. Pepper-sprayed by an officer on the banks of the Rideau River, the disoriented man fell into the water and drowned.
“Some community members thought the police were responsible for his death and there were protests,” said Miller who has been recognized with several awards, including the Ontario Women in Law Enforcement Mentorship Award in 2007 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. “Officers, on the other hand, were upset because they felt the community weren’t aware of what transpired that led to the death. I am a Black officer, the deceased was Black and here I am brand new in policing feeling that I wasn’t getting support from either side. It was a real baptism by fire and the situation became worse when one of the officers involved in the case committed suicide.
“I was at a crossroads and I asked myself if this is what I wanted to do. The answer was a resounding yes. I felt like I belonged here and that was what kept me going in the dark period. People in the community were already looking up to me as a role model and I couldn’t just quit and let them and my other supporters down.”
Long-time Ottawa resident Ewart Walters hailed Miller’s appointment.
“I am very happy for her, Ottawa and Black Ottawa,” said the author and former community newspaper publisher and diplomat.
While seconded to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2008, the veteran officer collaborated with the International Youth Advisory Congress on a national strategy that focussed on online safety and security for young people. The outcomes from this historic project were implemented by schools and policing agencies across Canada as an additional tool for combatting the exploitation of youths.
Policing and working in the community are not Miller’s only interests.
For her 40th birthday, she requested a digital camera as a gift from her husband of 20 years – OPS Staff Sergeant Kirk Miller -- and children Koral and Kenya who are in college and university.
“As soon as it was in my hands, it was like if a light bulb went off,” said Miller who played touch football and soccer until her late 30s and enjoys exercising. “As a little girl, I loved drawing, painting and taking photos. Photography is another way of me expressing my creativity. I took a few courses at Algonquin College and many photos every day to improve. On weekends, I take my camera and explore Ottawa. I create calendars with photos from Ottawa to let people now we have a beautiful city that should be explored.”
Miller is the OPS fourth Black Inspector after Friday, Granger and Carl Cartwright – the product of Haitian immigrants – who was promoted in 2017.