Female officer takes top cop position

Sue O’Sullivan talks about balancing personal and professional life with Carolyn Shimmin

Sue O’Sullivan, the new deputy chief of Ottawa police services, says she has time to grab a coffee with female police candidates who have issues or concerns about the job.

“I’ve been treated with a lot of equity by male officers,” says O’Sullivan. “With police officers you have to earn legitimacy and set the stage for female officers to come.”

Gary “Skates” Shuiteboer, senior constable and use of force class instructor at Algonquin College, says he remembers working with O’Sullivan in Centretown at the start of her career.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Shuiteboer when he found out his partner was a female. “We had the toughest beat to walk, Bank Street and Gilmour Street.”

But Shuiteboer was pleasantly surprised. “Sue has a black belt in tactical communication. Where I would have to use my fists she could talk her way out of anything. She could talk down the biggest and baddest guys.”

O’Sullivan is the highest-ranking female officer in the Ottawa police force’s 138-year history.

“I love the operational aspect of my new job,” says O’Sullivan about her job as Deputy Chief. “It gives me the opportunity to learn new things. I love the job as much today as I did the day I joined. I was born and raised in a wonderful community that has kept on growing.”

She began her police service in 1981, walking the beat in Centretown at the first police center at Bank Street and Somerset Street. Issues that O’Sullivan, other officers and the residents of Centretown dealt with at the time were prostitution, drug trafficking, and break and enters.

Cardo says that O’Sullivan had to walk the beat alone at times in Centretown.

“When I asked her whether she ever worried about working alone she replied, ‘no.’ If I came across a situation I don’t act rash. You have a radio and it takes three minutes for help to get there,’” says Cardo. “She can definately talk perpetrators out of things in those three minutes.”

“There were some amazing people I worked with in Centretown,” says O’Sullivan.

At the time, she says two other female officers graduated with her. She says that female officers were put under scrutiny by not only other police officers but the community. But she says as long as you did your job well, there are excellent policies in the Ottawa police service if ever there were issues.

“I don’t want to minimize the issue, because I had other friends in different police services where it really was a long haul,” says O’Sullivan. She says she worked hard to prove her legitimacy.

O’Sullivan’s father says his daughter went out of her way to meet people in the community she worked in.

“When she was an inspector in Centretown, there’s a large Italian community, and she said I want to know the people,” says Cardo. He says there was an elderly woman in the community who had lived through a world war and immigrated to Canada. The woman was petrified of anyone in a uniform. Cardo says O’Sullivan went out of her way to go and meet the woman. Whenever she had the opportunity, O’Sullivan would visit her and say hello.

“She’s very good at her job, she loves it, eats it up,” says Cardo.

“Policing is a people job,” says O’Sullivan. “It is about interacting with people be they formal, tragic…it is a helping profession.”

Cardo remembers at the start of O’Sullivan’s career she was called to an accident scene where a young woman had hit a child. The child had died but witnesses say that the woman was not speeding, and the accident was completely unpreventable. The young woman was very distraught over the accident, so O’Sullivan spent the entire night talking with the woman.

O’Sullivan was born and raised in Ottawa’s west end and attended St.Raymond’s Junior High, Laurentian High and then Carleton University where she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree, with a concentration in law and sociology. The short, solid, blond-haired and blue-eyed officer munching away on Halloween candy, says she knew she wanted to be a police officer in Grade 11 when an officer came to do a presentation at her high school for career day.

“We knew that’s what she wanted to do, and we said be yourself, you can do what you want to do,” says Cardo about his daughter. “Go for it.”

It took O’Sullivan 20 years to become deputy chief.

“Some people talk about how she went through the ranks too quickly,” says Shuiteboer. “But you should have seen the time and energy she spent in Centretown. I would do anything for her, I have tremendous respect for her. When Susie Q took over as district inspector, the morale went through the roof. I’ve never heard a negative comment about her.”

O’Sullivan says that some of the best advice she could give a person that wants to become a police officer is to always keep striving to achieve and make things happen.

“If you really want to become a police officer, it is a fantastic job,” says O’Sullivan. “But it requires you be really committed and your passion must be to help people. Do it for the right reasons.”

O’Sullivan has had a variety of jobs in the police force. She has worked as a media officer for the police service, has published 11 manuals, co-authored a training manual for child sexual abuse cases, and has taught at the police college. She also helped start up the National Capital Nuclear Bio Chemical committee three years ago which she now is co-chair. The committee is a combination of different response teams (fire department, EMS, ambulance attendants, etc.) who discuss their resource capabilities and try to develop emergency measures for crises. With the events of September 11, and the recent anthrax scares, the committee has had growing importance.

“I’m very proud to have been part of the committee,” says O’Sullivan. “In this city, these are difficult times and members of the service have given 150 per cent. The cost of not doing it properly would be grave. If someone says ‘that’s a suspicious package,’ call us, that’s what were here for.”

O’Sullivan has lectured on Canadian family abuse laws in Norway. She was also assigned to supervise the G8 meetings if they had taken place in Ottawa, and was present for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last Spring to do research. O’Sullivan was the only Canadian police officer sent to the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, where a protester was killed, to do research. She was also the main figure in security preparations for the recent NATO Parliamentary meetings held at the start of October.

“I was also the first female breathalyzer technician and the second woman to have children on the police force,” laughs O’Sullivan. The single mother of Katie, 15, and Jonathan, 11, she says her personal challenges include balancing work and the children.

“If she had to give up her career for her kids, she would,” says Cardo. “That’s how much she loves them.”

“They’re very proud of mom,” says O’Sullivan when asked what her children think of her profession. “They get to see the many sides of policing. They have got to see the victim’s piece, when mom is sitting on the phone at night.”

O’Sullivan is a confessed “hockey mom,” and spends her free time going to her son’s hockey games, football games and her daughter’s horseback riding lessons.

When asked what part of the job is the most rewarding, O’Sullivan replies, “I think it’s when you deal with a difficult situation with families grieving and they take the time to say the simplest things like thank-you when they have so many other things to think about. It’s pretty amazing.”

Schuiteboer has a prediction: “I predict that she will become the first female chief of police in the next 10 years!”