Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has announced he will be stepping down at the end of July, several months early and in the midst of mounting public pressure to scale back the service’s $1-billion budget and transform its approach to policing.
The surprise announcement was made the same day two city councillors filed a motion to cut the Toronto police budget by 10 per cent, and to reallocate that $122-million to other social services.
Police services across North America have been facing similar calls, as protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism entered their third week.
The movement was ignited in Minneapolis last month after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who cried out that he couldn’t breathe as a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The protests have spread to Canada, Europe and around the world.
At a news conference Monday, Chief Saunders – whose contract was extended by the police board last year until April, 2021 – denied that mounting pressure and threat of a budget showdown had prompted his decision to retire.
“My track record speaks for itself. The Saunders stock is a pretty strong stock,” he said. “We have no problems getting in the octagon when we need to. I’ve proven that over and over again. This organization has withstood every single type of challenge that has come our way, and that will continue to come our way.”
In Toronto, protesters have demanded answers about the role police played in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Ukrainian-Afro-Indigenous woman in mental distress who fell from a 24th-floor balcony while in the company of police who had been called to help her. The province’s police watchdog is reviewing the case.
Over the weekend, Chief Saunders was photographed taking a knee with protesters during an anti-police march.
The chief’s last day will be July 31, after which he said he looks forward to being a full-time dad and husband.
Mayor John Tory said he and Police Services Board chair Jim Hart were informed of the chief’s intentions last week.
Premier Doug Ford has said he does not support cuts to the police service.
“What we need is more community engagement, we need to make sure we always set the standards high, and we’ve got to have proper training,” Mr. Ford said. “But no, I do not believe in that [call to defund] at all. We need a safe city, we’ve got great police and we’re all part of the solution.”
In a phone interview Monday, Councillor Josh Matlow said he wishes the chief well in his retirement, but said it does not change the discussion around the motion he put forward on Monday.
“It’s not about the name of the police chief – today or tomorrow,” he said. “[This is about] decades of systemic racism within the Toronto police, and society at large, that need to be addressed finally.”
Mr. Matlow’s motion to partly defund the police, also calls on the Toronto Police Services Board to provide a line-by-line accounting of the service’s 2021 budget request. Under the Police Services Act, city council has control over the total budget, but not individual spending – and as a result, that information is not publicly available.
Asked whether he supports that call for more transparency around the budget, the chief said he would defer to the police board.
“Whether I like it or not or whether you like it or not, the amount of shootings that are out there are high. The number of guns that are out there are high,” he said.
“When we look at all of the various issues across this urban city and we talk to the symptoms and the causes again, we’re talking about housing issues, economics, schooling … a whole host of things that have to be put in place. And it’s not just programs, it’s the right programs. My stream, my lane, deals with gun violence. Deals with street gangs. And right now, until that gets under control … just the cut isn’t necessarily the best thing. However, there needs to be much fulsome discussion.”
Mr. Matlow said he’d like to see the money spent on programs that might prevent young people from picking up a gun in the first place. The motion will be voted on at the next council meeting, scheduled for June 29 and 30.
At his own news conference Monday, Mr. Tory called Chief Saunders a dedicated public servant who cared deeply about his city and his officers and worked to “modernize” the police force and boost community-based policing.
Asked about the notion of chopping 10 per cent off the police budget, as proposed by two of his critics on council, Mr. Tory said he would take a look at it, saying the city especially needs to find savings as it faces a financial crisis because of COVID-19. He added that under his watch, the force ended the procedure known as “carding” – stopping people who are not suspected of a crime, a practice that was found to disproportionately target Black men – and embarked on a process that prioritized community policing and cost savings.
The force’s approximately $1-billion budget had only risen on average 1.6 per cent a year during his time as mayor, he said, with two years, 2017 and 2018, in which it was flatlined. This year’s increases came after public demands for more traffic enforcement and community policing, he said.
Mr. Saunders became chief in 2015, after a contentious hiring process that came down to a two-way race with Peter Sloly, who was seen then as the reform candidate and has since gone on to become chief of police in Ottawa.
Mr. Saunders entered the office being described by colleagues as a “cop’s cop,” someone who lacked the public relations sheen of other candidates but held a policing résumé that had earned the esteem of front-line officers.
He joined the force in 1982 and spent years in tough units such as the Urban Street Gang Unit, Drug Squad and Emergency Task Force, before moving on to leadership roles. But that regard among front-line officers soon waned as Mr. Saunders fulfilled the demands of a cost-conscious police board. When the board asked him to implement an ambitious modernization plan aimed at reigning in the force’s billion-dollar budget, he embraced the role to a degree that alarmed the officers’ union.
Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack has argued that staffing cutbacks were made before certain duties had been alleviated, and that a hiring freeze left the force with a shortage of front-line officers.
Although the tensions between the two cooled after the police service announced the hiring freeze would be lifted, the union’s concerns about staffing levels lingered throughout what was ultimately one of the city’s most violent years, with a record-breaking number of homicides occurring in 2018.
The labour drama churned in the background throughout his tenure as the city endured some high-profile crimes, including the Yonge Street van attack and the Danforth shooting.
On Monday, Mr. McCormack said there are difficult discussions ahead about the future of policing that are better handled by a chief with five years of the job ahead of them, than one on his way out the door.
“I’ve never seen an environment in policing like we see today. And I think it’s going to take somebody with a long-term commitment and a long-term vision to fix this. Given that he only has one year left, it’s probably good that he’s moving out of the way.”
Asked about Mr. Matlow’s motion, Mr. McCormack called it “grandstanding” and said police are always looking for efficiencies.
In a statement, the Toronto Police Services Board thanked Chief Saunders for his work. The board – which will be responsible for hiring the chief’s replacement – said there will be no gap in leadership, and that a selection process is under way.
Alok Mukherjee, who led the Toronto Police Services Board for a decade before Chief Saunders’s appointment, says he was “very surprised” by the announcement. He said Chief Saunders has been caught in a difficult position as of late, highlighted on Saturday when, at an anti-police march in Toronto, he took a knee alongside protesters.
“It didn’t win him any points within the [Black] community, and it probably lost him points within his own organization with his rank-and-file,” Mr. Mukherjee said.
City Councillor Michael Thompson said that the next chief would have to do better at managing the evolution of the police and building bridges with residents.
“Increasing the trust and relationship, and really expanding the effort to reach out and to touch the broader community, and having that sense of understanding in that relationship that I think was needed, which never materialized.”
With reports from Patrick White, Oliver Moore and Laura Stone
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