'He paved the road for us': First black police officer in Toronto dies at 87

Lawrence McLarty overcame discrimination as he rose from walking the beat on streets such as Bloor and College to being one of the initial members of Toronto’s first SWAT team.

Lawrence McLarty joined Toronto police in 1960, rising to the rank of detective sergeant

Lawrence McLarty in 2014, at a Black History Month event at police headquarters. (Toronto Police Service)

Lawrence McLarty, who overcame discrimination and "paved the road" for African-Canadians to join Toronto police by becoming the city's first black officer, has died at the age of 87.

McLarty, who went by Larry, joined the Toronto police in 1960 after moving to Canada from Jamaica. 
McLarty's family snapped this picture in their Etobicoke front yard the day after he became a sergeant. (Submitted by McLarty family)

In his 32 years on the police force, he rose from walking the beat on streets such as Bloor and College to being one of the initial members of Toronto's emergency task force. He retired as a detective sergeant in 1992.

"He was very proud about being the first black police officer in Toronto," said his son, Michael McLarty.  "On a personal level, it was an achievement. But on another level, it represented a secure job with steady income, that he could provide for his family."

Friends and former colleagues attended McLarty's funeral on Wednesday.

Tiffany Castell, a Toronto police detective, described McLarty as a "trailblazer."  

"He provided me the opportunity to be here," said Castell. 

"Every single day of my career and every single day of my life I will be thankful. And I will strive to embody his legacy," said Castell. 

Friends and colleagues of Lawrence McLarty, Toronto's first black police officer, reflect on what he meant to them. 0:53

'The first of his race to meet requirements'

McLarty's first application to the Toronto police was rejected, despite his eight years of experience as a police constable in Jamaica.

"He was told he was one-eighth of an inch too short for the job," Michael McLarty said. "A few months later he went to buy a suit, and the tailor measured his height, and he discovered he actually did meet the requirement of 5-foot-10, at least by half-an-inch."

McLarty applied again and was successful. 
A 1960 clipping from the Globe and Mail shows McLarty and Michael, his son. (Submitted by Reuben Stroble)

An article published by the Globe and Mail at the time of his hiring quotes the police commissioner as saying that McLarty joining the service did not represent a change in hiring practices — he was simply "the first of his race to meet requirements."

Michael McLarty said his father faced some discrimination inside and outside of the office as he moved forward in his career.

"There were certainly instances of prejudice or resentment by other police officers and from the public, not used to seeing a black police officer with authority," he said. "But I will say, overall, many of his fellow police officers were very supportive."

McLarty 'paved the road' for black officers

Sonia Thomas, an inspector at 53 Division, said the name Larry McLarty is well-known among black officers in Toronto.

"We know and understand the struggle he went through ... He paved the road for us," said Thomas, who in 1986 became the second black woman to join the Toronto police. 

"And even 26 years after he started, when I was hired, there were challenges," said Thomas. 
"He is a mentor to me because he had the courage to stand alone and the strength and endurance to persevere for something that we all value and take for granted today," said Toronto Police Superintendent Reuben Stroble. (CBC)

Reuben Stroble, the superintendent of 53 Division, described McLarty as a "mentor" in an e-mail to CBC Toronto.

"Over the years, I have gotten to know Mr. McLarty, and I was inspired by his courage and determination to join an organization that was overtly biased towards people of colour," he wrote.

A 'let's get it done' guy

Michael McLarty also remembers who his father was at home, describing a man deeply committed to his family who loved to have fun.

"He loved reggae music and barbecues. We had a pool. He was kind of famous for hosting his parties, especially his New Year's Eve parties," he said.

McLarty doesn't think his father spent much time thinking about being a trailblazer. 

Lawrence McLarty speaking after receiving an award from the Toronto Police Black Internal Support Network. (Toronto Police Services)

"My dad is more an action-guy, let's get it done, let's move forward. I don't think he was very reflective on what he'd done. But certainly, from meeting other black police officers now, they've been very appreciative about what my dad did and supported him even in retirement."

A scholarship award for black youth interested in police work was created in McLarty's name, and until his health declined, McLarty was there each year to present it.

He died on Dec. 1 in Oshawa. Information about McLarty's funeral is available here.