Neil Price is the executive director of LogicalOutcomes, a non-profit consultancy based in Toronto. He is the author of the Community Assessment of Police Practices (CAPP) report on carding.
After a 37-year career in policing, former Toronto police chief Mark Saunders has declared his intention to run for mayor of Toronto. But Mr. Saunders, who seems desperate to follow his police-chief predecessors Julian Fantino and Bill Blair into politics, has made a deeply misguided and self-interested decision – one that doesn’t bode well for ethical municipal government or civil liberties.
Mr. Saunders has predictably signalled that he intends to focus his campaign on public safety. But the idea that a former police chief would naturally be more effective at addressing public safety is a red herring. Police officers are responsible for the enforcement and application of the law; grappling with the complex root causes of issues like transit safety and gun violence in Canada’s largest city requires a totally different set of qualifications. A police chief is accustomed to giving orders and expecting the rank and file to carry them out. A mayor, on the other hand, is a leader among equals, one who essentially must rely on persuasion, alliance-building and earning public support to get things done at city hall.
Mr. Saunders’s potential victory also risks blurring the lines around police independence, the critically important common-law concept that requires that officers make their decisions about investigating and charging individuals without political influence. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada established this as a constitutional principle, making it clear that police should not be subject to direction from elected officials, nor should the police’s independence be absolute. These principles speak to the importance of impartiality in applying the law, even when (or sometimes especially when) politicians are involved.
It is easy to pretend that just because an officer no longer wears the uniform they are no longer beholden to the police service. But would Mr. Saunders’s connections to Toronto’s vast police network suddenly disappear if he were to become mayor? Would his many decades in policing have no bearing on his thinking or policy initiatives at Council? Let’s not kid ourselves.
Indeed, if Mr. Saunders were to become mayor of Toronto, a set of perceived or real conflicts of interest would quickly arise. The Police Services Act, for instance, allows the mayor to be a member of the police services board, and while council could opt to appoint someone else, it would be nearly impossible to assure citizens that the former chief was not biased. The mayor is also responsible for tabling a budget where policing represents the largest cost to Toronto taxpayers. Would Mr. Saunders recuse himself from one of the mayor’s most important fiduciary tasks? He may not have a technical conflict of interest, but his past leadership role in policing would profoundly complicate his duties wherever the city’s police services are concerned.
Above all else, mayors are required to be community-builders – and on this file, Mr. Saunders has a woeful track record from his time as police chief. First, there was his staunch support for carding, the disgraced police practice of stopping and questioning mostly Black and Brown people to collect their personal information. Rather than unequivocally denounce carding, Mr. Saunders claimed that it was a useful investigative tool in so-called “lawful” circumstances. He also refused to meet with advocates who called for an end to anti-Black racism in policing.
Then there was the way in which he botched relations with Toronto’s LGBTQ+ communities after brushing off their suspicions that someone was targeting gay men. The eventual arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur proved they were right to report their concerns, and cemented their loss of trust in the police. Later, he would claim that TPS had suspicions too, but effectively blamed the community for failing to be forthcoming.
Mr. Saunders has had a long and successful career in the public realm as a police officer, but his desire to be mayor should not be welcomed. His candidacy simply presents too many risks and dangers for the people of Toronto, particularly for Black and racialized communities who live with racism in policing everyday. What’s more, Mr. Saunders has publicly said he didn’t even want the job: After failing to win a seat in the Ontario legislature for the Progressive Conservatives in last year’s provincial election, Mr. Saunders said he had “itched out” whatever interest he had in politics. Even beyond the myriad potential conflicts of interest, Torontonians deserve a leader who doesn’t see Canada’s largest city as a vanity scratching post.