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Mayor John Tory speaks with Toronto Police chief designate Mark Saunders on April 20, 2015.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's next police chief is quiet, say those who know him. Mark Saunders, 52, spent three decades on tough squads like drugs and gangs, sometimes working on some of the city's most dramatic cases, but rarely spoke publicly. He was the first black officer to head the homicide unit, but played down his role as a trailblazer.

In the spotlight as deputy chief for the last three years, he still kept many thoughts on policing to himself. When interviewing for chief, his vision for the force "blew some people away" on the hiring committee, though they had worked with him for years, said Councillor Shelley Carroll, who took part in the hiring process.

"He was the most unknown quantity," she said.

Deputy Chief Saunders will take command on April 26, the first black chief of a force that's under high public pressure. Current Chief Bill Blair, whose 10-year term ends this week, has had friction with the force's civilian oversight board in recent years over cost-cutting and the police practice of "carding," or questioning people who aren't suspected of a crime, which many have said disproportionately affects members of the black community.

Those controversies helped make the hiring of a new chief tense and political, with some seeing it as a test of the board's desire to reform the service. After the decision was announced Monday, people searched for clues about Deputy Chief Saunders and how he might lead.

"I know people are optimistic and are looking forward to getting to know him," said Audrey Campbell, past president of the Jamaican Canadian Association. Ms. Campbell crossed paths with the deputy chief when they participated in a review of policing, including the presence of racial bias, called the PACER report. She said he didn't attend the group's meetings but has talked to her about carding.

"I know that he has views on how PACER should have been marketed within the service to gain better internal awareness," she said.

Many of those who have met Deputy Chief Saunders say his unassuming manner is an advantage. Samuel Alexander, a teacher at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, invited Deputy Chief Saunders to speak to students for Black History Month.

"He's not trying to sell himself to you," Mr. Alexander said. "He just trusts that when you have a conversation with him, you'll be one of the early converted."

Still, others say, the future chief's relative lack of contact with the public is worrisome.

"We at the clinic haven't had the opportunity to work closely with him, and that's partly why we found this appointment to be bittersweet," said Anthony Morgan of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. He wanted the appointment of Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, who has worked extensively with the public, and he said he'll be watching for a clear position from the new chief on carding.

Deputy Chief Saunders was often described as a favourite of the police union, though its president, Mike McCormack, called media reports that the union had lobbied for his appointment "nonsense."

Mr. McCormack said he was "optimistic" that Deputy Chief Saunders would carry on Chief Blair's legacy, and he described him as a "cop's cop" who is well respected among officers. However, he also said he believes Deputy Chief Saunders could make changes around finances and community relations, as well boosting internal morale.

"He has credibility with our members and credibility with the community, and we think it strikes a good balance," Mr. McCormack said.

Ms. Carroll said there was "very, very public campaigning" for Deputy Chief Sloly, and that his opponent ended up looking like the "underdog." But he won the job with his ideas on bringing harmony to the force – and his race wasn't a big factor, she said.

"For all the ones who are struggling in at-risk neighbourhoods, that's not going to make a difference to them – the colour of his skin," she said. "It's whether or not the chief of police has a really good sense of how to lead the rank and file, how to lead them to understand neighbourhoods at risks and … police them well so everyone there feels we're all in this together and we want you to prosper."

On Monday, Deputy Chief Saunders took questions on carding and race, saying "there will be change," but that it wouldn't happen overnight.

"If you're expecting that all of a sudden, the curtains will open up and miracles will happen, that's not going to happen. What will happen is there will be lots of open dialogue, there'll be lots of talking – more so than ever before."