If making a difference is the mark of a worthwhile career, then Larry Hill, the deputy chief of the Ottawa police, can take his imminent retirement with pride.
On Wednesday night, 450 people congregated at the St. Elias Banquet Hall to praise a man described as a community builder and advocate of adversity. "We were people of all kinds, those there that evening," Fawaz Mahfouz, spokesman for the 50-strong Friends of Larry Committee, told the Citizen. "And we all were celebrating what Larry Hill, over many years, did to build a bridge between the community and the police."
The Friends of Larry Committee is part of the Ottawa Benevolent Compassion Team, initially formed to raise money for the children of war-torn Lebanon. Committee members are mostly immigrants, many of them from the Middle East, but including people from other regions as well.
Deputy Chief Hill, who has spent 31 years on the city force, has spent the past decade attending all kinds of community meetings, bringing the message that the police serve all communities equally.
The message apparently has gotten through.
As Mr. Mahfouz said, "He has particularly touched the hearts of those people who come from other countries — people from the Middle East, certainly, but also Yugoslavians, Serbs, and you name it.
Larry, by his very presence, made everyone realize that the police serve the people inclusively, and this is a message that I really believe the entire force has taken to heart, and helps explain why Ottawa is now rated the top Canadian city in which to live."
(That top rating was conferred earlier this month by the Toronto-based Moneysense magazine, which compared 123 Canadian communities with more than 10,000 residents.)
Dr. Shakar Sheikh, a retired physician who read a poem in honour of Deputy Chief Hill on Wednesday evening, joined Mr. Mahfouz in praising the soon-to-retire deputy chief.
For so many, Larry is just an emblem of humanity. Whether you are rich or poor, in adversity or prosperity, whether you are white, brown, or blue, in Larry you can find a friend, someone who can really hear you.
We also appreciated the number of policemen who came out, from the local force and from the RCMP.
All this shows the calibre of this man."
Dr. Sheikh’s wife, Hazra, was equally effusive.
"People feel when they meet Larry for the first time that they’ve already known him for years, and at the appreciation evening, you could feel all the love that has radiated between him and the people who know him."
Deputy Chief Hill has received many honours that attest to his service to divergent communities. When he was named to the Order of Merit of Police Forces, the citation stated: "His work with diverse communities embodies the Canadian virtues of acceptance and openness. He stands as a shining example to all Canadians of what this country is and should always be.
He has also been recognized by the Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers; Gender Mosaic, an Ottawa based support group for transgendered people; the Ottawa Muslim Women’s Association; the J'Nikira Dinqinesh Education Centre, for commitment to social unity among the diverse ethnic, cultural and faith heritages in Ottawa; and the Circle of Canadians, which promotes a common Canadian identity in a diverse society.
The day after his appreciation meeting, Deputy Chief Hill sounded a bit abashed by all the tributes.
"They say I built a bridge, but all I really wanted to do was get out and meet people," he said."You know, the police suffer from stereotyping, too — the stoic, gruff, aggressive, unfeeling law enforcer who is always looking for people to arrest.
And I knew the only way we could serve the community was to soften this image, because we need people to trust us if we want to do our job properly. Without the community’s help, without people calling in to report crime and give us tips, we won’t be effective at all."
He acknowledged, however, that his wife, Barbara, a First Nations woman, taught him a lot about the impact of discrimination.
"She taught me the terrible pain of racism and stereotyping, and I don’t want to see anyone go through those indignities."
Eleven years ago, when he was promoted to the position of superintendent and executive officer under then chief Brian Ford, Deputy Chief Hill began attending many of the events that the police force is invited to.
"Brian Ford wanted an inclusive environment, and we saw the need for communities to link in more significantly to the police. And from there, things exploded and I had the mission of making sure that every community realized it would not be underserved by the Ottawa police."
Today, Deputy Chief Hill believes that mission is taken more and more to heart by all members of the Ottawa police force.
Wednesday night’s event was considered a kind of valedictory honour for Deputy Chief Hill, who had planned to retire at the end of July. However, with the recent arrival of Vernon White, the new chief of police, Deputy Chief Hill says he might stay on until January 2008, and possibly until the early days of spring.
No mistake, though: He enjoyed Wednesday’s tribute.
"I normally like to sit in the shadows, and it was all quite humbling, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but I guess those are nice problems to have."