After half a decade at the helm of Canada’s largest municipal police force, Mark Saunders remains a paradox and his incumbency a litany of disappointments
Toronto police chief Mark Saunders said his goodbyes last Friday, receiving the customary bagpipe send-off at police headquarters before driving off into the wild blue yonder.
There were the usual plaudits from friends and supporters acknowledging a 38-year career spent on the force. It rarely ends well for Toronto police chiefs, and Saunders is no exception.
Saunders has had more than his share of controversy. From carding to deadly confrontations with people in mental distress to issues of police accountability, his tenure has been a disappointment. Some might even call it a mess.
In exit interviews, he said he has few regrets, which must come as a surprise to some given the current state of policing and the force’s edgy relations with Toronto’s Black communities.
He managed to leave the job on his terms, which is more than many of his predecessors can say. He announced his retirement in June, eight months before his contract was set to expire.
But what legacy Saunders leaves as Toronto’s first Black police chief remains an elusive question. Ask friend or foe and there’s liable to be a long pause.
The Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) statement on his retirement noted Saunders’ “incredible dedication” and “commitment to moving the Service forward as a progressive, compassionate and excellent organization.”
But there were no specifics offered.
Longtime policing observer John Sewell describes Saunders as “a placeholder,” the compromise candidate for a city not quite ready for the radical change needed in policing when he came out of nowhere to become chief more than five years ago. “I can’t think of anything of note,” says Sewell. “He filled the job.”
Little was known about Saunders when he came into the job. He was described as “low-key” and “circumspect.” A “cop’s cop,” is how then police union president Mike McCormack described him.
Those who know him say he is methodical, which didn’t always serve him well in an environment where quick thinking is often required.
But after half a decade at the helm of Canada’s largest police force, he remains a paradox. And his incumbency is marked by one missed opportunity after another.
In interviews with police insiders, it’s not even clear if Saunders really wanted to be chief. Or, as with his interest in policing, it’s something that seems to have occurred by happenstance.
Mark Saunders likes to tell the story about how he grew up in Milton when it was still farm country and his was the only minority family in town.
He says it taught him a lot. But rather than frame his views on anti-Black racism, the experience seems to have taught him more about how to walk in certain circles – how to keep his head down and his chin up, as it were.
He applied those skills when he joined the Toronto police force at the age of 20.
Saunders is vague on the details but has said he encountered his share of discrimination as he made his way through the ranks. But he was never part of the activist core of Black officers. He was more a conventional cop than a crusader, better known for wearing his religion on his sleeve than rocking the boat, says one police insider – which ingratiated him to the God, Queen and country crowd on the force.
As a young recruit, Saunders was known for being able to run laps around his competitors at Ontario Police College as well as for his discipline, which he gained through his interest in jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. “We’re looking for guardians, not warriors,” was a fave catchphrase of the former chief whenever he was asked about policing. Back then, some of his colleagues knew him as Markus.
But for Saunders, policing was never a career choice until a chance meeting with a police recruiter at a local mall. He applied to the RCMP. And while he was waiting for them to get back, he also put in an application to be a member of the Toronto force. Toronto replied first.
His rise through the ranks was not mercurial by any stretch, at least not at first.
But Saunders never stayed in one place for too long. That’s a mistake a lot of officers who get tired of the job make.
There’s a certain trajectory that those being groomed to be chief follow, and that usually includes time on the homicide squad. Saunders would become the first Black officer to head the unit.
He’s credited with changing how the unit conducts its investigations. But there would be questions about that when the Bruce McArthur serial murders broke in Toronto’s LGBTQ community – and why a task force set up to investigate the murders was shut down under Saunders’s watch in 2012. The TPSB has ordered an independent review of that debacle. But that’s another story.
To some policing observers, it’s not clear if becoming chief was even part of Saunders’s career plan. He wasn’t on the radar when talk first started about it being time for Toronto’s first Black chief. But that would soon change.
All of a sudden the little-known Saunders, who preferred to keep a low profile, was becoming a more visible presence at police press conferences at headquarters.
Saunders was by no means the favourite to break the force’s colour barrier as the city’s first Black chief. Peter Sloly was considered the Board’s choice.
But that was a prospect that was too radical for the Toronto police union and Saunders’ predecessor Bill Blair.
The effort internally to upend Sloly got bad. At one point, Sloly considered hiring a lawyer to protect him from the threats and mudslinging from those in the force who didn’t want him to be chief.
It was no coincidence that Saunders’s trajectory up the ranks began to make a steep climb at the same time as Sloly’s name was being touted for chief.
Yes, there was the damage to be undone from Blair’s tenure. There was the fallout from carding to fix with Black communities, and the guns and gang violence that ended in one of Toronto’s deadliest mass shootings. There was also a new mayor keen on putting his stamp on policing. Mayor John Tory put himself on the Board precisely to mend the damaged relationship between police and the city’s Black communities.
But if Toronto was to have a Black police chief, then it would be someone more palatable to the higher-ups.
Saunders was reportedly doing good things as unit commander at 12 Division in the city’s west end. The division is responsible for policing some of the city’s most racialized and rough-and-tumble neighbourhoods. Saunders won accolades for being able to sit down with his harshest critics.
“He seemed to be well liked and trusted by the people,” says former TPSB chair Alok Mukherjee.
But for some segments of the community, Saunders’s willingness to come to the table would see a 180-degree turn when he became chief. What happened?
Everyone remembers the quizzical stares at the press conference when Saunders was introduced as the new chief.
Saunders recounted how it took his son to remind him that morning what a historic day it was. The momentousness of the occasion may not have been lost on Saunders. But his words were a clear sign that he did not want to be defined by his Blackness.
Still, the plan was that Saunders would blaze a progressive trail. A task force would be set up to devise a plan. The Way Forward report was released a year later.
Most agree that there was a lot of good language in the document, including on the need to rationalize the police budget. But there were few community voices on the task force, and it’s implementation would prove an insurmountable problem.
From the moment the Toronto police union started to balk – in particular on plans for a freeze on hiring and promotions – it didn’t take long for Saunders and his command to capitulate on a raft of the report’s recommendations.
It was “one step forward, two steps back,” says Mukherjee.
Other chiefs had backed down to the police union before. But Saunders seemed not only unwilling to stand up to the police association, he seemed unwilling to build the support needed across the organization to implement real change.
The same was true of his relations with Black communities.
A pivotal moment to build bridges would present itself after the police shooting death of Andrew Loku. But Saunders refused to even meet with Black Lives Matter-Toronto activists camped out in front of police headquarters.
Similarly, on the issue of carding, Saunders sided with the status quo.
“He kept himself out of trouble and things walked along,” says Sewell. “That’s not what we needed. We needed some serious change.”
Former TPSB member Shelley Carroll takes a more sympathetic view. She says Saunders was handed a stacked deck by his predecessor on the issue of carding.
The Board had passed a more rigorous protocol to guard against arbitrary stops by police. It had replaced the criteria that had been used by the force but Blair refused to implement it. When Saunders arrived on the scene, that criteria would eventually be replaced again by the province’s legislation.
Whether his handling of the situation was a case of Saunders getting bad advice from his command team is unclear.
But with Saunders, you never got the feeling that he was in total control. Or that he commanded the respect of the rank and file.
Unlike Blair, Saunders was not the type to hold regular meetings with his commanders or visit the troops at various divisions.
He left his deputies pretty much to themselves, to the point that antagonisms grew between them and Saunders was kept in the dark on important decisions.
Some say Saunders became more isolated as his tenure wore on and his health became an issue. (He underwent a kidney transplant in 2017.) It was revealed last week that Saunders was kept completely out of the loop on the beating of Dafonte Miller by off-duty Toronto cop Michael Theriault.
He would only find out months later (and via email) of the decision by his designate not to notify the province’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU) of the incident. Yet Saunders would defend the decision nonetheless.
It’s a damning indictment of Saunders’s seemingly tenuous hold – as was the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s report released in 2018 into racial profiling and discrimination on the Toronto force. That report found that a Black person in Toronto is 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot by police.
But denial and diversion marked Saunders’s response.
In the weeks before he announced his departure, the issue of anti-Black racism on the force would come full circle with the police custody death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet.
Saunders seemed to be singing from a different hymn book. He said that systemic racism does exist on the force. He took a knee with protestors at City Hall.
Some say he had finally been liberated by his decision to quit to speak freely. Others suggest the heat surrounding the Korchinski-Paquet controversy had got to him.
Whatever the reasons, the actions were uncharacteristic. Call it his final contradiction.