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Chief Bill Blair attends a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board in Toronto on Thursday March 19 2015. Photo: Chris Young for The Globe and Mail.The Globe and Mail

To find the right man to run Canada’s largest municipal police force, the board charged with the task cast a wide net. That hasn’t sat well with insiders who feel the two best candidates are in their own backyard. Robyn Doolittle and Selena Ross report

The common belief in Toronto policing circles is that the list of Chief Bill Blair’s possible successors has been whittled down to two: both men, both black, both current deputy chiefs – Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders.

But according to members of the Toronto Police Services Board, a more complicated question is being deliberated behind closed doors.

When the civilian oversight board launched its search for Chief Blair’s replacement in January, its members made a point of announcing that they were pursuing “national and international” talent. Since then, the discussion around Toronto’s next chief has been dominated by the lobbying efforts of the Sloly and Saunders camps. Now, with the search in its final stages and the board under pressure to choose one of the deputy chiefs, members are asking themselves whether they’re truly open to an outside option.

The shortlist does in fact include “an international presence,” confirmed one board source, who added there are also options from elsewhere in Canada. Out of an initial pool of 20 or so contenders, the board chose around a half-dozen to interview. All three of Toronto’s current deputy chiefs – the third is Michael Federico, a 40-year veteran – made the shortlist. The spotlight has centred on deputy chiefs Sloly and Saunders.

Deputy Chief Saunders is the safe establishment choice, favoured by the senior command and the union. Deputy Chief Sloly has the backing of influential voices in the black community, as well as reform-friendly thinkers who feel the service needs a new direction. If the board is serious about change, and gun-shy of bringing in someone from the outside, Deputy Chief Sloly has the advantage. It might seem like a winning compromise, but there’s a catch: Unlike Deputy Chief Saunders, Deputy Chief Sloly isn’t as well liked in some quarters of the force. Choosing him is more risky in terms of morale.

Councillor Shelley Carroll, one of the seven members of the police board, said the noise around that debate has been intense. After word got around that some of the board members were trying to influence their colleagues one way or the other, they had a meeting about it.

“We have talked about it in the boardroom – rumours that people were making up their minds and were being lobbied, or lobbying,” Ms. Carroll said. “And so we called each other on it and had a conversation about it. And I don’t know if it was the case, but we heard rumours, and it’s not the case now. Because we are all clear that we are just going to refuse to engage in that. I feel really, really adamant about this.”

The Globe and Mail reached out to every member of the board. Privately, some will acknowledge they aren’t sure where certain individuals stand. Of those who spoke, each said something similar to Chair Alok Mukherjee’s official statement on the issue.

“When the board decided to conduct an international search, the board actually meant it. And didn’t do so for symbolic reasons. There has been an ongoing conversation ever since the board decided not to renew Chief Blair’s contract that we are faced with a number of significant challenges in the city in terms of the future of policing, and we need to bring in the best possible person that we can find as the next chief,” Mr. Mukherjee said when asked how serious the board was about going external.

The board chair of Canada’s largest municipal police force, made up of roughly 5,460 officers, has been the most vocal advocate for new blood. He has privately told colleagues that he is skeptical anyone who came up through the Toronto ranks will be as free to implement the kind of major – and unpopular – changes needed to tame the $1-billion budget. Mr. Mukherjee’s crusade to overhaul the service has fractured his once-cordial relationship with Chief Blair and police union president Mike McCormack, both of whom counter that transformation is already under way. This tension has added another layer to the debate.

Deputy Chief Michael Federico. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

After last fall’s municipal election, which saw John Tory become mayor of Toronto, the three municipal seats on the seven-member police board changed. Councillors Mike Del Grande, Michael Thompson and Frances Nunziata were replaced by Councillor Chin Lee, Ms. Carroll and the mayor himself. Those following the chief hunt closely wondered what this shuffle meant for the search. Some Sloly boosters believed the fix was in against their candidate.

Mr. Thompson has been one of Deputy Chief Sloly’s most ardent backers. Mr. Del Grande would have been an unlikely vote for the establishment-backed Deputy Chief Saunders, as the councillor was a big supporter of Mr. Mukherjee’s reform-focused strategy. Meanwhile, Mr. Tory’s friendly relationship with Chief Blair is thought to benefit Deputy Chief Saunders. (The mayor declined to be interviewed for this story, but members of his team, speaking on background, said Mr. Tory will make an “independent” choice based on who is most qualified.)

Ms. Carroll said that, despite the theories, which she’s heard, nothing has changed.

“There’s a belief that we are only interviewing internal. There’s a belief that we are only interviewing external. There’s a belief that we’ve already done all the interviewing we’re ever going to do. It’s crazy,” Ms. Carroll said.

“What is the case,” she added, “is all the things that were committed to do by the previous board are what’s going on. We said we were going to hire an external search firm and have an arm’s-length group looking at this, and they really are very much in charge of it. We said we were going to take the advice of the existing chief, but he’s not going to be sitting on the interview panel, and that’s true.”

In order for [the board] to go outside, our people would have to be demonstrably inferior.
Mike McCormack, police union president

If history is any indicator, the advantage goes to the current crop of deputies.

Since 1957, the year the Toronto police force as we know it was created, the service has never had a chief who wasn’t currently a hometown cop first. In fact, in all those years, all but one was chosen internally, the exception being Julian Fantino, who spent his early years as a Toronto cop before moving on to run the York and London forces.

Mr. McCormack said there’s a reason for this. “We think it should be the best candidate possible based on qualifications. But we feel that part of those qualifications is knowing what it’s like to police in the city of Toronto and we think we have very qualified people within our service. In order for [the board] to go outside, our people would have to be demonstrably inferior.”

Further complicating matters for any international candidates is a section in the Ontario Police Act that requires police officers to be either citizens or permanent residents. It’s not an “insurmountable” problem, said a source on the board, although it would cause delays.

The union isn’t publicly endorsing anyone, but behind the scenes, according to sources within the union and the board, it is pushing for Deputy Chief Saunders.

Deputy Chief Mark Saunders (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Deputy Chief Saunders is viewed as a cop’s cop, having taken three decades to move through the ranks. He has headed up some of the toughest squads within it, including the homicide division, drug and gang units and the emergency task force. He led the response to 2009’s shutdown of the Gardiner Expressway by Tamil protesters and the 2012 Occupy Toronto demonstrations.

Born in England to a Jamaican family, he immigrated to Canada as a child and decided to become a police officer because he “did not want to be stuck behind a desk,” he told the Caribbean Camera newspaper in 2012. He was celebrated for being the first black officer to head up some high-profile units, but said he was “a police officer first.

“Yes, colour does play a factor, but the primary purpose of a police officer is to extract information,” he told the newspaper. “And that’s the first hurdle you have to overcome.”

By contrast, Deputy Chief Sloly’s current assignment heading the community safety unit involves delving deep into race relations. As a self-described “brown-skinned kid from Jamaica,” he told The Globe in a 2013 interview that his experience as an immigrant helped him, and the force, navigate the controversial carding issue. “I’ve had my experiences where I’ve been pulled over by the police,” he said. “Being an outsider on the inside is always a very difficult set of circumstances, but it does give you perspectives and insight.”

Deputy Chief Sloly has a master’s degree in business, a stint doing peacekeeping in Kosovo and a brief professional soccer career. In another difference from Deputy Chief Saunders, Deputy Chief Sloly was named to his current rank in 2009 at the age of 43, and was thought to be the youngest deputy chief in the country. His rapid ascent has earned him both admirers and naysayers. In one of his early senior posts, Deputy Sloly earned a reputation in the force as being overly ambitious and sometimes overly demanding of his subordinates. Those stories have dogged him throughout his career, despite the fact his supporters say he learned from his mistakes and has been unfairly criticized.

The fact that there are two highly qualified black candidates hasn’t escaped the notice of Toronto’s black communities, says Sam Tecle, a York University PhD candidate who grew up in the Jane and Finch area. He spoke before the police board in late February during a presentation by the Toronto Youth Cabinet about the search for a chief.

“I think there probably might be backlash if one of the black candidates aren’t chosen,” Mr. Tecle said.

When a consultant was hired this fall to survey hundreds of Torontonians about what they want in a new chief, many said they would like to see a non-white chief, according to the final report.

Like elsewhere in North America, this is a pivotal time for race relations in the Toronto Police Service. A little more than five years ago, Chief Blair caused waves in the police community by acknowledging that racial profiling exists – a stark departure from his predecessor Mr. Fantino, now an MP in Vaughan, who in 2002 denied the existence of racial bias. Under Chief Blair, the service began actively recruiting women and minorities. He ushered in a community-based policing model in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. But, in recent years, accusations of racial profiling have again dogged the service, with the far-reaching Police and Community Engagement Review (or PACER) report.

Acting on those recommendations was a rockier process, especially when it came to the street checks police do as part of their community policing strategy. Last week, the board and the force together announced a new policy that allowed the checks to continue with few of the restrictions the board had tried to implement. Meanwhile, in public consultations about the search for a new chief, officers said they were feeling increased hostility on the job as a result of high-profile police shootings elsewhere, including in Ferguson, Mo.

Leaders in the black community have made their pick well-known.

Deputy Chief Sloly has been “always attached to some community initiative” for the past 15 years, says Arnold Auguste, the publisher and chief editor of the weekly newspaper Share, which has a readership of 100,000 among Toronto’s black and Caribbean communities.

“I think this is so important, to have somebody who understands the community. Also somebody we know and feel we can trust,” said Mr. Auguste, who has written editorials calling for Deputy Chief Sloly to be hired.

The first that Mr. Auguste heard of Deputy Chief Saunders was when the officer was named to his current role in the fall of 2012, he said. “I’ve been a reporter in this community for 42 years … and you know we’ve had a number of stories where police officers are interacting with the community in a positive way, and I’ve never seen his name show up in any of those stories,” he said. “What I’ve been hearing since then is that he’s a really nice fellow, a good guy, well liked and all that. I just don’t know him.”

Former deputy chief Keith Forde, Toronto’s first black deputy, has also endorsed Deputy Chief Sloly publicly.

At 48 and 52 respectively, deputy chiefs Sloly and Saunders are considered to be on the young side when it comes to running the Toronto Police Service. This is where Deputy Chief Saunders has the edge.

But Mr. Forde says the police board started forging a new concept of “operational readiness” when it hired Chief Blair. Before that, every chief for decades had come through the homicide squad. Now, that kind of experience isn’t as much of an asset, he said.

Mr. Forde described Deputy Chief Sloly as a networker extraordinaire who often draws on advice from outside of the police force. “That network involves people from all nationalities, all colours, all creeds, all genders,” he said. “That network he’s built up is business people, politicians. Just name them: He built up that pool of people.”

Deputy Chief Peter Sloly. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Deputy Chief Sloly declined to be interviewed for this story, as he is currently “involved in a formal HR chief’s selection process,” he wrote via e-mail.

Deputy Chief Saunders agreed to a brief interview. He told The Globe that he is very loyal to the “greatest police service in the world” and has never wanted to build up work experience elsewhere.

Nevertheless, he has an appetite for change, he said, despite his traditional assignments. “The service is moving in a new direction, which is a direction that I think is going to be very positive for this city, for the taxpayers,” he said.

When it comes to making those changes, especially financial restructuring, knowing the inner workings of the force’s high-profile squads would help Deputy Chief Saunders decide, as chief, what could and couldn’t afford to be cut. While they might not have the same candidate in mind, Mr. Forde agrees with the police union that an outsider would be bad for the force – that change is possible from within, and that it would be read as an unnecessary rebuke.

“I believe that you should only be looking outside if you have a corrupt organization and you want to change the culture. I don’t see that at all in this organization, not even remotely,” Mr. Forde said.

Councillor Carroll said she isn’t bothered by warnings about officer morale.

“I’m not going to be bullied by a police article that says, ‘If it’s not this person, all hell will break loose,’” she said.

As the board heads into interviews over the next two weeks, it is waiting to hear the candidates pitch ideas for reorganization and cultural change, Ms. Carroll said. The Toronto deputies, though they have an edge in some ways, may suffer from the drawn-out process.

“I call it a disadvantage,” she said. Given that the board knows its deputies so well, “you have to fight every urge to presuppose what their interview is going to be like.”

Councillor Lee said he remains “neutral” heading into the interview stage.

Added provincial appointee Dhun Noria: “All I can tell you is that this is going to be a very thorough search and that we are looking for people inside Canada and outside Canada. The net is cast quite wide.”

We want the best possible person for the job. If that’s [Deputy Chief Sloly or Deputy Chief Saunders], then so be it.
A Toronto Police Services Board member

By the time the board opted not to renew Chief Blair’s contract last summer, Mr. Mukherjee’s fight for reform as chair was three years old. In 2011, he formally called for the contracting out of administrative services, outsourcing of functions such as background checks, scaling back of management and using private security firms for some policing functions. His discussion paper, “Avoiding Crisis; An opportunity: Transforming the Toronto Police Service,” irritated some in the command, who saw it as the board overstepping its oversight role.

Between then and now, it has pressured Chief Blair to restructure the service. The chief says he has; the board disagrees. This has led to an opinion among some members that the best person to overhaul the system is someone who didn’t come up within it. The board has carefully watched the success the Toronto Transit Commission has found with CEO Andy Byford, who was recruited from Australia.

But nothing is set in stone.

“We want the best possible person for the job. If that’s [Deputy Chief Sloly or Deputy Chief Saunders], then so be it,” said one board member.

The Vancouver headhunter who helped set up one of the country’s police chief success stories says it would be a mistake for the board to lean toward either an insider or an outsider before it heads into interviews. George Madden helped secure Jim Chu as chief of the Vancouver Police Department seven years ago. Chief Chu had spent his career climbing the ranks in Vancouver, and was therefore an insider. But over the course of several meetings, his vision for the city won over a board hungry for a reformer, said Mr. Madden.

“If you met the guy, you’d get it,” he said. “There’s that feeling that you know the person is very sincere, that they’re not just saying something in an interview.”

Chief Chu, who is set to retire this spring, went on to drastically change the police force’s relationship with residents of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods and to create a new policing model around sex work that’s unique in Canada.

Chief Bill Blair. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

In a December interview, Chief Blair said many of the changes the board has called for are already being implemented. For example, Mr. Mukherjee has talked about implementing some of the strategies currently under way in Britain, where police services are finding millions in savings by contracting out services, sharing resources with neighbouring forces and using cheaper civilians – sometimes even volunteers – for jobs previously done by sworn officers.

“As far as economic sustainability goes, again, I think we have an obligation to continue to find innovative ways to police this city to keep it safe. And we’ve done that. And it’s sometimes, I think, not well recognized,” Chief Blair said.

For example, he said, the Toronto Police Service doesn’t have a helicopter, but it borrows from neighbouring forces when the need arises. Chief Blair added that on his watch, the force has rejigged deployment strategies so that officers are where they’re most needed.

He said the force could invest in better technology that will save money, particularly when it comes to traffic enforcement. He pointed to opportunities to share back-office administrative staff – such as human resources – with the city.

As for his successor, Chief Blair says he has lots of thoughts, “but I’ll keep those to myself. … I want my successor to be successful and I want them to continue to move this organization forward. I am very confident that there are some outstanding police leaders who will apply for this job and who will do a great job.”

The board plans to hold interviews over the next two weeks. From there, it will narrow the field to two or three before announcing a final choice ahead of Chief Blair’s April 25 departure.

One thing is certain: Toronto’s next chief will not be a woman. None made the shortlist, although hardly any applied in the first place.