Can Mark Saunders lead change as Toronto's new top cop?

Toronto's newest police chief is a well-respected veteran of the force, but will he listen to the growing voices calling for reform of Canada's largest police force?

From calls to end carding to the need to cut costs, the new chief is going to need some thick skin

Toronto Police chief designate Mark Saunders speaks to reporters. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Last October, when the search for Toronto's new police chief began in earnest, Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee spoke of the need for someone who could "lead transformation" of Canada's largest police force. 

Mukherjee wanted someone who could drive change on two main points: improve the force's relations with minority groups and look at innovative ways to pare back fast-rising policing costs. 

At the time, Mukherjee said the search would not be restricted to internal candidates. That the board, which provides civilian oversight over the police, would cast a wide net and consider candidates from outside Toronto, even those unafraid to lock horns with the force's union and other groups that might be inclined to resist change. 

"The board wants to be able to consider a short list of very strong candidates," Mukherjee told CBC Radio's Metro Morning last fall. "They may be internal, they may be external. We are interested at looking both in Canada and outside Canada. We want to make sure Toronto gets a very good chief."

By almost all accounts, in Mark Saunders Toronto is getting a very qualified leader with an impressive and extensive policing resumé. Saunders is said to have narrowly beat out another well-regarded candidate, Deputy Chief Peter Sloly. 

Saunders, 52, has held high positions in the force and served on the drug squad, urban street gang unit and was commander of the homicide squad. 

Saunders will also become Toronto's first-ever black chief (Sloly, 48, is also black).

Saunders was also seen as the candidate most likely to have the union's backing. A source told the Toronto Star that in picking Saunders, the Police Services Board "caved" to the union and to senior officers.

Someone who understands policing

Mike McCormack, who heads Toronto's police union, denies this and said he's looking forward to working with Saunders.

"He has some credibility with us. He's walked in the shoes of a police officer," McCormack said. "It's not somebody who's talking from an abstract. This is someone that understands policing."

But is Saunders — a 32-year veteran of the force favoured by the union — the right person to lead the kind of change that Mukherjee spoke so hopefully about last fall?

Recently the issue of carding, a practice whereby officers gather data during interviews with people who've committed no crime, has loomed large over the force. 

Many feel carding is disproportionately directed at minorities. Outgoing Chief Bill Blair, whose bid for a third five-year term was denied last summer, did suspend the carding policy, which has since been amended. The new version says police should not consider "race, place of origin, age, colour, ethnic origin, gender identity or gender expression" before they approach someone for questions.

Last summer Toronto`s police services board opted not to give outgoing Chief Bill Blair a third five-year term. (CBC)

Many community groups, however, wanted carding reforms to go further and include rules that would require police to make people they interview aware that speaking to police was voluntary. Many also wanted police to be required to provide those they interview with a record of the interaction. Those elements were not added to the new policy.

Blair and Sloly have defended carding as an essential police tool. Saunders's position on carding isn't so clear. 

Ballooning police costs

The need to curtail rising policing costs was also identified as a priority by many on city council. The police budget is now at $1.15-billion, 90 per cent of that total goes to salaries and benefits. 

Some have called for a chief willing to pare back costs in an era when crime, by most measures, is falling. 

Any move to cut costs would mean clashing with the powerful police union, a group any chief needs to maintain support among the rank and file. 

Former Police Services Board vice-chair Coun. Michael Thompson spoke highly of Saunders and said he's willing to give him a chance to show he can spearhead change, even though some fear he represents the old guard.

"I'm prepared to wait and see," said Thompson. "I'm not 100 per cent certain at this point in time. But I think he has the ability to be transformative."

Thompson called Saunders a "smart guy" and a "great man" with the ability and potential to mend fences with various community groups. 

"He has a compassion that will be needed going forward," he said.

Thompson said it's a plus Toronto is getting its first-ever black chief, but said it's Saunders's credentials that matter most. 

"At the end of the day you want a competent, qualified individual. It's about the ability to lead the organization into its next stage."

Thompson said Blair started strong — "he worked hard, he listened" — but later in his term began to freeze out members of the PSB.

Thompson said at times Blair outright ignored the PSB directives. 

"I saw him to be rather stubborn," said Thompson. "The type of person who was unwilling to listen. He would tell you one thing and mean something entirely different."

It will be interesting to see whether something similar happens over the course of Saunders's watch. 

McCormack, whose father served as Toronto's police chief from 1989 to 1995, said Saunders will certainly need to prepare himself for opposition that is sure to come from all sides: the union, city council and community groups. 

"He better grow some very thick skin, because you're never going to make everyone happy," he said. 


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