Announcing the appointment of Mark Saunders as Toronto's new chief of police, board chair Alok Mukherjee summed up what he and his colleagues were looking for in a successful candidate for the job. "Two words: leader and change."
That Deputy Chief Saunders is a leader is beyond question. With 32 years on the force, he held a number of top management jobs before graduating to deputy. He comes across as frank, sure of himself, down to earth and often funny. ("Being black is fantastic," he told reporters who asked about the fact that he is the first black chief. "It doesn't give me super powers.")
With his obvious people skills and his wealth of experience in senior roles, he is an excellent choice to lead Canada's biggest municipal police service.
But can he be an agent of change? Both Mr. Mukherjee and Mayor John Tory were looking for someone who could modernize the force. Mr. Tory said that meant not only showing a willingness to embrace new technology and new ways of controlling costs, but also showing the "necessary commitment to reforming policing itself."
That sounded very much like a recipe for an outside candidate. Mr. Mukherjee has been pressing for policing reform for years and has held up the experience of other forces in Britain and elsewhere that did innovative things such as handing some policing roles to civilians. Mr. Mukherjee concedes that he "went into this process with that thinking: that we needed to bring in an outsider."
Why, then, did they choose a veteran local cop for the job? Mr. Mukherjee says two things persuaded the board he could be a change agent: his record and his attitude.
When he led the homicide squad, he improved productivity by adopting a team approach so detectives wouldn't get tied up endlessly trying to close one case. As a commander over the years, he proved himself adept at identifying and promoting talented officers and bringing in clear standards to track their performance. At one unit he led, he introduced an integrated information management system to keep track of cases.
Once he threw his hat in the ring for the chief's job, says Mr. Mukherjee, Deputy Chief Saunders showed that "he is a very good listener and he is open to new ideas." That didn't mean he just nodded his head at every suggested change. Instead, he probed and questioned and challenged.
"He likes a good argument," says Mr. Mukherjee. "That is something I enjoyed with him. He will not be someone who is just rolling over but he is someone who will engage with the board and exchange candidly."
Over time, the board became convinced that here was a man who would not only embrace change but go out and sell it to his force. That seems plausible, at least. Because he is a known quantity to local police – well-liked and approachable – he might have a better chance than an outsider of shaking up the organization, of bringing change from within.
Mr. Mukherjee recalls seeing Deputy Chief Saunders put his persuading skills into action. At a community meeting several years ago, he confronted a crowd incensed about what they called biased policing. Unrattled, he went up to the loudest complainers and offered to come see them to talk things through.
"Mark was not at all defensive," says Mr. Mukherjee. "Mark went out and called up the people who were so critical, went and visited them, engaged them in conversation about what the source of their frustration was so at the end they became his supporters."
In his brief exchange with the media on Monday, the chief-designate showed how disarming he can be. Mr. Mukherjee lists some other qualities that helped win him the job: accessibility, groundedness, common sense, openness to new ideas and a preference for gathering the facts before making up his mind.
The board was looking for someone who would be more than a symbol of Toronto's diversity, as important as that is. They wanted someone who could transform an expensive, often hidebound police force and bring it into the 21st century.
In Mark Saunders, says Mr. Mukherjee, they believe they have found their man.