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Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders steps down

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders, the first Black leader of Canada’s largest municipal police service, is resigning July 31 — a surprise move that comes with eight months left in his contract and amid growing calls for police reform locally and across North America.

Monday’s sudden announcement, which has stunned both rank and file and higher-ups in his own force, comes at a time of upheaval for Saunders’ profession. Just three days ago, Saunders — an officer of 37 years, all of them in Toronto — took a knee as a sign of solidarity with protesters decrying police use of force against Black citizens and amid growing calls to “defund” police organizations.

By then, he knew he was leaving.

Days before, Saunders had advised the Toronto police board and Mayor John Tory that he was stepping down early — despite the civilian police board last summer extending his contract into a sixth year, to April 2021, so he could continue his central task of modernizing the force.

But Saunders did not say his resignation was in response to ongoing demonstrations, telling reporters at a news conference he is stepping down now for “a whole host of reasons” including that it’s the right time personally. Noting the decision is not due to health concerns — Saunders had a kidney replacement in 2017 — he said family is “the most important thing to me now.”

“This weekend, I was getting a lot of phone calls from different people talking about, you know, ‘Let’s go for another five years. What do we need to do?’ And I had to put it to a stop.”

Believing the organization is “in a safe spot” and noting he’s never had an August off with his family since becoming a police officer, Saunders decided it was time to “say thank you Toronto.”

“Thank you for your support. Thank you for continuing to work with us. But the utmost importance, I want to say thank you for giving us time, giving us those awkward moments whenever you thought that our actions were questionable.”

“We haven’t been perfect but we’ve always tried to move toward excellence,” Saunders said.

The outgoing top-cop’s announcement spurred reactions from political leaders, including Premier Doug Ford — who called him a “man of integrity” — and Tory, who thanked Saunders for his “exemplary service.”

“He has been a dedicated and responsible chief of police who has always worked to protect the city. He cares deeply about the people of the city, all of its neighbourhoods, and about the men and women who serve with him,” Tory said.

Frequent critics responded, too, including Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, the union that was frequently at odds with Saunders during his reign. In 2018, the union held a vote of non-confidence amid attempts to reduce costs and the number of police officers.

McCormack — who said last year, when Saunders’ contract was extended, that the union was “looking forward to the next chief” — said he thinks Saunders has been thinking about leaving for a while and is not reacting to current calls for police reform.

“I’m surprised but not shocked,” McCormack said. “It’s a lot for families, it’s a lot on the home life.”

John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and part of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said he didn’t think Saunders has been a great leader.

“I don’t think he made the changes that were needed,” Sewell said.

The next police chief is set to inherit a force that has for years been grappling with a billion-dollar budget, a city battling rising gun violence and communities reeling from public trust crises — including the racialized legacy of carding and the ongoing impact of police handling of the case of Bruce McArthur, the serial killer who preyed on eight men from the city’s Gay Village.

The task of finding Saunders’ successor now falls to the Toronto police board; Saunders said he will not be making any recommendations on who should replace him but noted he is happy with the service’s deputy chiefs. Tory said the police board hired an executive search firm about a month ago, noting it takes “quite a long time to look far and wide” at candidates inside and outside Toronto police.

The police board said the city will see “no gap in leadership, especially during this challenging time,” and said the selection process for the next chief “will incorporate public consultation and input.”

Asked what Toronto needs in a new chief, Tory said the city needs “someone who is sensitive to what are incredibly complex challenges involved in not only running what is the fourth biggest city in North America, and keeping it safe, but also the most diverse city in the world.”

McCormack said the board will have the difficult task of finding a successor that has both the support of the community at large and also the rank and file — “it’s going to be a challenge.”

Canada Press    6/9/2020


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