It was perhaps the best-kept secret in Toronto police history.
With little fanfare and not a hint of what was coming, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders announced his resignation at a midday press conference this week, surprise news landing after two weeks of growing calls for police reform in Toronto and across North America.
Saunders, 57, gave little explanation for his departure except to say he wanted more time to be a father and husband.
“Family is the most important thing to me right now,” Saunders told reporters about his departure, eight months before his extended contract was set to expire. “And sorry if anybody is shocked in a bad way.”
Saunders’ rise to top cop is well documented. After an unofficial campaign for the support of the Toronto police board, Saunders — a longtime front-line cop who’d led the homicide squad and had the backing of outgoing chief Bill Blair and the powerful Toronto Police Association — bested a polished and progressive front-runner in Peter Sloly (now chief of police in Ottawa, where he said this week he intends to stay).
Back in April 2015, the hope was that Saunders, Toronto’s first Black police chief, could be a change agent capable of making cost-cutting and trust-building reforms precisely because he was a “cop’s cop” with the backing of the front-line.
More than five years later, did he succeed?
The goal: Cutting costs and “modernizing” the police service
A ballooning budget. An outdated policing model. Low levels of trust.
Saunders’ first year in the job was spent developing a plan to address big problems he inherited as chief. His modernization “action plan” aimed at overhauling police service delivery, decreasing costs and improving declining public trust. The goals and recommendations were drawn up by a task force made up equally of police and community members — including former Toronto budget chief David Soknacki and community advocate Idil Burale.
To Saunders’ credit, Burale told the Star this week, “he chose to include me on the (task force) even though I was publicly critical of him and an avid Sloly-for-chief supporter.”
The task force made 33 recommendations, including changes to training and hiring, greater partnerships with the community, investments in technology and giving more work to non-uniform staff. The overarching aim was to redefine policing and bring about “comprehensive and long-lasting change.”
Saunders cited the task force as a highlight of his term this week, saying it gave “the community equal ownership of what the Toronto Police Service should look like.”
But results have been mixed. And amid calls for reform and an upcoming motion to city council to cut the police budget, Saunders and the board have been criticized for a lack of significant change.
The police budget passed $1 billion in 2019 and 2020; last week, Soknacki said, “there is a sense that a lot of changes that could have been made more quickly and deeper have not been made.”
Some big gains have been made. A freeze on hiring and promotions in part saved about $100 million between 2016 and 2018. And, after decades of failed negotiations with the union, the service rolled out far more efficient shift schedule.
“That’s going to have huge benefits down the road, putting the right number of people at the right places at the right time,” said Toronto police board chair Jim Hart, who stepped into the role last fall.
Andy Pringle, who was chair of the Toronto police board from 2015 until last fall, praised Saunders for having the courage to go ahead with the changes. “Some of these things we put in place, he was going to get criticized internally, for trying to move too far, too quickly,” he said.
Shelley Carroll, the Toronto city councillor who sat on the police board when Saunders was hired, said Saunders “laid the foundation for change” even if “getting it fully implemented has met with frustration.”
Both Hart and Mayor John Tory cited cost savings from civilianizing work previously done by officers, resulting in more cost savings. Saunders has “definitely created a more efficient organization,” Hart said, noting that between 2015 and 2019, the number of calls for service per deployed officer went up by nearly 20 per cent.
Tory also noted the service’s investments in technology, including the “connected officer” program — a “godsend” for freeing officers of paperwork and constant trips back to the police division.
One swift action taken as a result of the task force was ending the controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) unit. The unit had become notorious for its high rate of carding, the practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of committing a crime, which disproportionately impacted Black and brown men.
Tory acknowledged that when it comes to modernization, “we are nowhere near where we have to be.” But he said Saunders and the board get a “bad rap” when critics don’t recognize how big of a challenge it is to change the course of a ship that’s been steaming ahead in one direction for a long time.
“It’s about the art of the possible, and how fast you can bring these changes in a big, complex organization,” Tory said.
To Burale real meaningful change has not been achieved: “I know there’s been some symbolic efforts to convey ‘change’ but at the end of the day, from an outsider perspective, TPS has not changed towards the spirit of the (task force) report,” she said.
The result: Some gains, both big and bureaucratic, but overall? Not enough.
The goal: Fighting gun violence
Undoubtedly, Toronto’s rising gun violence was the biggest crime-fighting challenge of Saunders’ tenure. The number of people injured or killed by gun violence each year has steadily increased. 2018 saw the most homicides in the city’s history, including 51 gun deaths. Last year saw a record 490 shootings.
At his news conference, Saunders said he wants to keep working to reduce violence by addressing the root causes of crime — “I see a lot of young Black boys being killed by Black boys,” he said.
Waves of crime bring inevitable calls from the police union, and some commentators, that more officers are needed. Saunders resisted coming to council cap in hand — except as staffing fell over a wave of natural retirements, Pringle said.
“I think Mark has been thoughtful and courageous in how he has approached it, he has tried to approach it fairly and proactively targeting it through intelligence, he’s also tried to address it through the court system and making sure things change so the really bad people don’t get right back on the street,” Pringle said.
Some of Saunders’ law-and-order attempts to combat the violence were harshly criticized — and did not prove successful. Last summer, Toronto police launched the $4.5 million Project Community Space to give officers increased visibility in “high-risk areas.” The initiative led to higher solve rates for gun cases, but did not reduce the shootings; Toronto saw the most people killed or injured by guns in 15 years.
Despite Saunders’ talk about the root causes of crime, initiatives like “Project Community Space” undermine that approach, said Sam Tecle, a community leader with the youth organization Success Beyond Limits, based in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood.
“It’s a flawed concept, throwing more policing at these kinds of complex, community-based issues,” he said.
Asked about Saunders’ record on crime, Hart, the current board chair, said Toronto is “one of the safest cities in North America” despite its rapid growth.
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Hart added that Saunders if very interested in targeting the root causes of crime. “I think he’s done the best job he can possibly do on the policing side, I think he would like to do more on the community side.”
Burale said Saunders’ was “very much a cop’s cop” who saw “understood everything first and foremost from a police operations lens.” That meant something like carding could be useful for public safety because it helped solve crime — even though it further alienated people.
“I appreciate that he made progress in evolving his thinking on these topics in the last five years,” she said. “Sadly, to some this coming to terms might have been too slow and late.”
Louis March, founder of Toronto’s Zero Gun Violence Movement, said Saunders put in a “good effort,” but the reality is gun violence went up during his tenure. There’s only so much that can be achieved when investments are not going to the community but rather to policing, March said.
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this,” he said, noting Saunders was “but one of the players on the bench.”
The result: Despite aims to address “root causes,” too many boots on the ground — to little effect
The goal: Increase public trust and improve race relations
When Saunders stepped into the role of chief, police already had a fractured relationship with Toronto’s Black community.
Just days into his tenure, Saunders expressed support for carding and drew blowback when he referred to the innocent people stopped by police as being “collatoral damage.” He admitted later it was a poor choice of words, saying the better way to put it was “social cost … in which members of the community do not feel that they are being treated with dignity and respect.”
Nonetheless, Saunders’ five years at the helm did little to improve relations with the Black community, former board chair Alok Mukherjee said in a recent interview — “it’s a spotty legacy.”
Saunders did not seize opportunities to connect with the Black community during flashpoint moments, said writer and educator Neil Price, who was previously hired by the police board to study the impact of carding. Key moments included the beating of Black teen Dafonte Miller — off duty Toronto police officer Michael Theriault is charged with aggravated assault, alongside his brother — and the reaction to the fatal shooting of Andrew Loku.
In the days after Loku’s death, members of Black Lives Matter Toronto camped out outside Toronto police headquarters, but Saunders never came down to speak with them — “I don’t think he ever recovered from that,” Price said.
Saunders has also faced criticism for the force’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment on the job; during his time, several female officers have filed complaints to Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging discrimination based on sex, saying the workplace was toxic for women.
Public trust also took a hit following the investigation into Bruce McArthur, the serial killer who preyed on eight men from the city’s Gay Village. Saunders drew criticism for suggesting in an interview with the Globe and Mail that community members failed to come forward to police to help catch the killer.
Saunders’ defenders point to initiatives spearheaded or supported by the chief — including the service’s recent move to begin the collection of race-based statistics.
Following Loku’s death, Saunders and the board established an anti-racism advisory panel; the committee is examining disparities in police service to racialized people and the intersection of race and mental health. Tory has previously pointed to the committee as aiming to restore and rebuild trust.
That’s also the aim of the neighbourhood officer program, rejuvenated under Saunders’ watch. Although some community members have expressed concerns about more officer presence, early research out of Humber’s Criminal Justice Degree Program has shown many others feel safer and more connected to police.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes, the kind of relationship they are building up as part of building trust back up in the police,” Tory said.
Overall, Tory said, trust is not lost overnight and it’s not restored with a new chief or a single policy change. “It takes a long time to earn it back and I think we’re on that track.”
Hart also pointed to Saunders’ renewed commitment to outfitting front-line officers with body cameras, calling it a “huge piece to build public trust and accountability.”
Overall, though, Price said it wasn’t enough. Saunders was “affable, decent and well-intentioned,” but it was a “disappointing tenure… He was not the right guy for the times.”
The result: Some gains, many losses and a “spotty” legacy
Saunders’ last day is July 31.