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Then-Toronto police chief Mark Saunders speaks in Toronto, on July 27, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Justin Ling is a freelance journalist and author of the Bug-Eyed And Shameless newsletter.

“If anyone knew before us, it’s people who knew him very, very well. And so that did not come out. … We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn’t have the right answers. But nobody was coming to us with anything.”

That is how Mark Saunders – then Toronto’s police chief – tried to explain away his police department’s failure to capture the worst serial killer in Toronto’s history, who had by then killed eight gay men over nearly eight years. Not only that, he was trying to explain why his department had failed to even realize there was a serial killer. And to do it, the leader of Toronto’s $1-billion police department blamed the city’s LGBTQ community – a community that had already been victimized by the police for decades.

In the days after those comments were published in this newspaper, Toronto’s queer community cried out in shock. Rather than apologize, Mr. Saunders argued that his words were taken out of context. The audio of the interview that he released made things even worse.

During his tenure, Mr. Saunders frequently pointed to the LGBTQ officers in the ranks of the Toronto Police Service to shield him and his department from public scrutiny. But after his comments, some of those officers, tired of being used by their chief, decided to reach out to The Globe and Mail with proof that Mr. Saunders wasn’t just scapegoating the community – he was lying about it.

Those officers helped us prove that, in 2013, hardworking detectives from the Toronto Police Service actually did reach out to residents of the Gay Village to try and find clues that could explain the disappearances of three men from the neighbourhood. And they heard a name from multiple people: Bruce McArthur, who had a violent assault conviction on his record.

They interviewed Mr. McArthur, but did not pursue him as a suspect. Mr. Saunders kept this a secret. Those investigators may well have uncovered evidence of Mr. McArthur’s guilt had the investigation continued, but unfortunately, the investigation was shut down – and Mr. Saunders was responsible for the homicide unit at that time. Mr. McArthur went on to murder five more men.

Members of Toronto’s LGBTQ community know this history. They remember how the investigation into Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found dead in the Rosedale Ravine in 2017, was marred by errors and rank incompetence for which no one has been held accountable; her death remains unexplained, and police failed to interview a prime suspect even though they had him in custody on another charge. They also recall how Mr. Saunders was the chief when TPS undertook an undercover operation to arrest men cruising in Marie Curtis Park. They remember how Mr. Saunders tried to dictate to the community the terms of their own protest when he requested that armed and uniformed officers be allowed to march in the Pride parade. And they remember how Mr. Saunders issued a statement of “regret” about the homophobic 1981 bathhouse raids, but never actually apologized to the community for the harms the police caused.

Others suffered under Mr. Saunders’s watch, too. Traffic enforcement, one of the most fundamental things we expect from a city police service, fell to an all-time low in 2018; and a rash of deaths followed. Mr. Saunders simply demanded more money for more staff, but when the city acquiesced, he directed just eight of the new hires for traffic enforcement.

Meanwhile, despite pouring more and more resources into the Integrated Gun and Gang Task Force, Toronto faced a spike in homicides in 2018. And while Toronto Police tend to be exceptionally good at solving murders, the city’s clearance rate plummeted under Mr. Saunders’s tenure as chief – falling as low as 41 per cent in 2018. His plan saw more officers going into underserved neighbourhoods, and it neither reduced violence nor solved violence that did occur.

Racialized communities also remember how Mr. Saunders defended carding. It wasn’t until 2022, after his departure, that police finally released the data showing just how damaging that racist tactic was: Black people in the city were twice as likely to be arbitrarily stopped by police than white residents, and significantly more likely to face deadly force in those interactions.

You would be hard-pressed to find a single metric from Mr. Saunders’s time as chief that would justify his rehiring. And yet now he is asking for a promotion, having announced his candidacy for Toronto’s mayoralty.

Toronto needs to have a conversation about its police force, which seems determined to set its own priorities instead of listening to the citizens they serve. But Mr. Saunders’s candidacy need not be a referendum on policing writ large. Voters should reject Mr. Saunders not because he was chief of police, but because he was a bad chief of police.

Voters may look wearily at a crowded field of imperfect candidates, and may gravitate to the name of the cop they recognize, especially as headlines focus on a perceived rise in violence. But listen to the communities who remember his time as chief: Mr. Saunders is uniquely ill-equipped to be mayor.

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