Historicist: The Origin of "Toronto's Cops are Tops"

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Historicist: The Origin of “Toronto’s Cops are Tops”

Exploring the evolution during the early 1970s of the clichéd phrase used to support law enforcement, "our cops are tops."

From the Toronto Sun, February 15, 1973.

From the Toronto Sun, February 15, 1973.

Depending on your disposition, “our cops are tops” is either a rallying cry that honours the dedication and sacrifices made by the city’s law enforcement officials and supports their law-and-order agenda, or a trite expression trotted out whenever police morale is low or conservative-leaning publications require a catchy headline. The expression has been part of Toronto’s lexicon for over 40 years, evolving out of a period where several officers died in the line of duty and a desire among the media and public to see our city avoid the deteriorating safety conditions which afflicted early 1970s urban America.

When Brunswick Hotel owners Albert and Mollie Nightingale visited New York City in early April 1972, they found a metropolis where the social order appeared to be dissolving. As crime rose and the economy plunged, there were constant reminders, underlined with a tinge of racial tension, for residents and tourists to watch out for muggers lurking in doorways and on graffiti-riddled subway trains.

That scale of fear affected the Nightingales when staff at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan warned them not to wander the streets at night.

It was a revelatory moment.

“We were stunned and came to realize how lucky we were in Toronto,” Albert told the Star. “So when we got back we decided to do something to show our appreciation.”

From the Toronto Star, April 14, 1972.

From the Toronto Star, April 14, 1972.

To honour the police officers who watched over our city, the Nightingales spent $235 to produce 5,000 blue-and-white buttons which declared “Toronto Cops are Tops.” They handed them out to the public at the corner of Bloor and Yonge. Over three hours on April 13, 3,000 buttons were distributed. “We were very gratified to have so many people accept the button and actually put it on,” Albert noted. Similar badges were distributed later that summer to spectators at the Metropolitan Toronto Police Amateur Athletic Association games.

The Nightingales tapped into the public’s mood to support the police following the recent deaths of two detectives. On February 27, 1972, Michael Irwin and Douglas Sinclair investigated reports of a man wielding a pellet gun in the Roywood Apartments near the Don Valley Parkway and York Mills Road. Lewis Fines, who turned out to be wielding a .22 semi-automatic rifle, had shot at cars and road signs along the freeway. When they arrived, Irwin was shot in the head, while Sinclair took bullets in the chest and lungs.

Less than a year later, two more officers fell while on duty. On January 11, 1973, Constable James Lothian was shot in Cabbagetown following a car chase involving a drug dealer. On February 1, Constable Leslie Maitland was shot after chasing a bank robber near Coxwell and Danforth.

Maitland’s death prompted an emergency city council debate the next day over a long-contested police radio tower planned for Sir Winston Churchill Park at Spadina and St. Clair. For several years the tower had bounced around the OMB—police claimed it was the only suitable location in the neighbourhood, while local ratepayer associations felt it ruined the park. Police chief Harold Adamson claimed the force’s communication system, which consisted of two overloaded channels, was so outmoded that it hindered the search for the suspect who killed Maitland. Mayor David Crombie, who previously opposed the tower, felt that any councillors who refused to back it would lose public support (“the time for talking is over”). Council voted 20 to 2 in favour of asking the province to approve the tower (with only John Sewell and Dorothy Thomas opposing), which it promptly did.

The deaths of Lothian and Maitland provoked many letters to newspapers. Several supported police calls to provide funding for two officers per cruiser. Others, such as one sent to the Star by Willowdale resident D. Chatterton, demonstrated frustrations with the concurrent national debate regarding the elimination of the death penalty.

Now that another good policeman has been killed perhaps it will show the public that the death penalty should be retained. All these “do-gooders” running around levitra from uk making life easy for the poor animals in their country club prisons are making it very bad for law-abiding citizens. I am afraid to go out at night and there are plenty like me.

From the Toronto Sun, February 19, 1973.

From the Toronto Sun, February 19, 1973.

Members of the youth council of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews (CCCJ) were planning an provincial conference when they heard about the wounding of another Toronto officer two days after Maitland’s death. “Someone said that with everyone saying how rotten police are, maybe we should hold a rally to support the police,” University of Toronto student Mary Babic told the Sun.

Interaction between youth and police hadn’t been so friendly in recent years, especially when the Yorkville scene unravelled during the late 1960s. Increased police presence and curfews had deepened tensions between youth and the local establishment, including an incident in August 1967 where police used excessive force in responding to a sit-in.

Letters were sent to secondary schools across Metro, asking students to bring banners and signs to Nathan Phillips Square on February 18, 1973. Both Eaton’s and Simpsons promoted the rally in their daily newspaper ads—Simpsons reminded readers that the event coincided with the start of Brotherhood Week (“people caring for people”). Entertainment ranging from rock acts to the 48th Highlander band was booked. CCCJ executive director John Smithson hoped that people of all ages would come. “If there are more young than old here,” he told the Sun, “it will be quite a condemnation of the establishment.”

While organizers hoped 50,000 would show up, attendance was estimated at a quarter of that figure. Bone-chilling temperatures prompted attendees to shuffle in and out of City Hall. Around 200 officers, half of whom were on their day off, dropped by. People lined up around officers to collect autographs on everything from placard to matchbooks. The press made it seem as if the public was gathering signatures from celebrities. “I’m going to hang this up in my bedroom,” a youth told the Globe and Mail. At least one officer later complained about suffering writer’s cramp from all of the requests.

From the Toronto Star, February 19, 1973.

From the Toronto Star, February 19, 1973.

Police were pleased with the attention. “It’s really nice to get some praise once in a while,” Sergeant Warren Pollard told the Star. “When things get rough, when you handle a brawl and it really gets ugly, and you come out on the worst side, then you wonder if it’s all worth it.” Pollard admitted he sometimes thought about applying for a desk job, “but not now—not after this wonderful reception.”

“It’s great to be able to talk to people,” constable Brian Francis told the Sun. “Usually at demonstrations we just stand there and not take sides.”

Two minutes of silence were observed to honour fallen officers. Two students took to the stage and urged the crowd to hold hands in the name of brotherhood. “Let us hope today we have started something good.” Other speeches were given by stand-ins for Crombie, Metro Chairman Albert Campbell, and Premier William Davis. “Respect for law enforcement cannot be legislated,” observed Metro Toronto Police Association president Syd Brown, “it has to be earned.” Lothian’s widow Norma thanked the crowd for the kindness and sympathy she had received.

Police chief Adamson said that previous public support for the force had not done his heart “as much good as levitra from uk this one today.”

From the Toronto Sun, February 19, 1973.

From the Toronto Sun, February 19, 1973.

Not everyone was supportive. Several students distributed leaflets representing a commune which viewed police as servants of the wealthy. Near the start of the rally, a group of 30 Marxist-Leninists carried banners declaring that “monopoly capitalists are the cause of crime.” Advertisements to draw fellow comrades to the rally caught the attention of their political polar opposite, members of the neo-Nazi Western Guard.

Unsurprisingly a melee ensued on the south side of the square after leaflets were knocked out a Marxist-Leninist’s hand. Soon “Cops are Tops” buttons mixed with the leaflets on the plaza. Five officers were injured while trying to calm the crowd’s tempers. Seven people faced 16 charges for offences ranging from causing a disturbance to assault causing bodily harm. A woman who was carried away by her arms and legs yelled “see how the police treat people?” High school students tried to drown out the protestors and pelted them with snow.

Globe and Mail columnist Richard Needham doubted such a rally could occur in the United States, especially in cities which had experienced racial riots.

Could a rally like this have been held in Chicago or Detroit or St. Louis? Maybe. But I doubt that it could have been held in the heart of downtown; people in these cities are nervous about going downtown, even in broad daylight. Could it have been held in an open square? I doubt that, too: in the American cities, you soon learn to avoid large open spaces, they make you an easy target for muggers. Could it have been held without group heckling at the best, group violence at the worst? I doubt that, too. The American police have lots of bitter enemies among the young blacks, the young whites and “liberals” of whatever age.

Needham then contemplated what set our city apart:

The point is that Toronto police don’t have to cope—don’t yet have to cope—with any large amount of public hostility, which makes their task that much easier. Nor do Toronto police have to cope with any large amount of violent crime. Practically all Torontonians are (within the limits of human nature) peaceable souls, and this makes Toronto, in North American terms, a rather special sort of place.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, November 15, 1974.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, November 15, 1974.

Throughout the rest of the 1970s, the cry of “our cops are tops” periodically resurfaced. Sometimes it was genuinely appreciative, as when police were praised for their crowd control efforts when the Bay City Rollers packed Nathan Phillips Square in 1976. Usually it was to provide positive PR whenever allegations of police brutality arose, or minority groups protested police treatment. For example, in the aftermath of the shooting of Jamaican immigrant Albert Johnson by two officers in August 1979, pro-police forces mobilized. North York mayor Mel Lastman personally handed out hundreds of “Cops are Tops” buttons. As police morale sank amid the Johnson incident, the publication of homophobic and racist material in the police association’s newsletter, and disagreements with Mayor John Sewell, it became an easy phrase to rally the troops and conservative segments of the public ready to don buttons and wave signs.

Additional material from the February 28, 1972 and February 19, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 14, 1972, February 2, 1973, February 3, 1973, February 7, 1973, February 15, 1973, and February 19, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 15, 1973 and February 19, 1973 editions of the Toronto Sun.


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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