Neil Price is a writer and educator. He lives in Toronto.
Plato once said: “When a man is out of his depth, whether he has fallen into a little swimming-bath or into mid-ocean, he has to swim all the same.”
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has been swimming out of his depth ever since he became leader of Canada’s largest police service. In announcing his resignation months before his contract was set to expire in April 2021, a 37-year police veteran signaled his desire to head to shore.
In 2015, Mr. Saunders was fêted as Toronto’s first Black police chief. Affable and hard-working, he had a solid reputation as a grunt who worked his way up through the rough-and-tumble police ranks. A so-called cop’s cop, his promotion was seen as a reward for a steady and safe pair of hands.
Nevertheless, Mr. Saunders struggled right away. Rather than reading the turbulent headwinds and setting out a clear and direct course of bold and long-overdue action, Mr. Saunders committed himself wholeheartedly to a middling don’t-take-any-chances approach to leadership, a sorely out-of-sync mindset that led predictably to missteps.
And there were quite a few. There was his dismal handling of carding, the disgraced police practice of stopping and questioning mostly Black and other racialized people without proper cause. On this important file, Mr. Saunders showed he was wholly incapable of building the necessary relationships with Black communities to understand that carding was eroding public trust and needed to be ended immediately and unequivocally. Instead, the chief dithered and put out a series of disingenuous statements about the investigative value of carding data. That policy was eventually banned in Ontario in 2017, but he prepares to leave the job having never owned up fully to the devastating impact the practice has had on Black communities.
When Black Lives Matter activists camped out below his office during weeks of protests in response to the 2015 police killing of Andrew Loku, Mr. Saunders stalled badly and ultimately never met with the group. That obstinacy destroyed whatever morsel of credibility he may have had in Black communities and established a reputation for aloofness, which characterized those relationships through the remainder of his tenure.
Then came his ham-fisted performance during the Bruce McArthur homicide investigation. In an incredible display of arrogance, Mr. Saunders blamed LGBTQ Torontonians for what he felt was a lack of co-operation with investigators as members of their own community disappeared over the years, a time in which the police declined to even consider the possibility of a serial killer. Mr. McArthur was eventually charged and convicted for his crimes, but Toronto’s top cop was written off by yet another community in the process.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. No slouch on the job, Mr. Saunders was a reassuring presence when headline-grabbing incidents such as the Danforth shooting or the Yonge Street van attacks occurred. He seemed to grasp the significance of those events and was mostly praised for his transparency and candor. His efforts to lead the service’s modernization were also lauded, but with the police budget still hovering around $1-billion, the plan has yet to bear any obviously tangible fruit.
However, his limitations as a leader have also been painfully obvious. It was never clear that he accepted the popular if much-maligned idea that being a Black police chief obligated him to embrace Black issues with a sense of urgency and personal responsibility. In fact, when he was appointed chief, Mr. Saunders quickly downplayed race by suggesting he hadn’t thought about his position’s historical importance until his young son pointed it out. At his press conference on Monday – at a moment when the entire notion of policing has come under intense pressure – Mr. Saunders failed to even express remorse for poor relations between Toronto police and Black communities. Instead, mere days after taking a symbolic knee in solidarity with global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, Mr. Saunders chose to place his thoughts elsewhere: “I see a lot of young black boys getting killed by young black boys,” he said.
It’s tempting to think of the chief as a man who wasn’t allowed to be bold, as a man whose hopes to bring about substantive change were thwarted. But in the end, at Monday’s press conference, Mr. Saunders had the look of a man who realized the sea was only going to get rougher from here on in. Stepping up to meet the current challenges surrounding policing was more than he asked for. So now, a fish out of water prepares to leave it altogether.
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