By Gerald V. Paul
Toronto’s Police Chief-designate Mark Saunders is a potential agent of change – but he’s the first to tell you, he’s no miracle worker.
However, the 32-year veteran of the force is vowing to connect for a safe community and to build bridges when he takes over on April 26.
“Bear with me,” Saunders said following the announcement at police headquarters this week of his historic appointment.
When The Camera reminded Saunders, 52, of his Jamaican roots – born in England of Jamaican heritage – he gave a thumbs-up and exclaimed “Jamaica!”
Saunders joins Jamaica-born Devon Clunis who is Canada’s first Black police chief in Winnipeg. Clunis and Saunders are credited for their strong leadership styles and venturing into new policing territory.
Addressing carding and other contentious police issues, Saunders said, “If you’re expecting that all of a sudden the Earth will open up and miracles will happen, that’s not going to happen. What will happen is there’ll be lots of talking, more so than ever before, I look forward to those conversations.”
Responding to a Facebook posting on the appointment that says “Team spirit: Building Bridges … congratulations to Saunders”, Dr. Sheldon Taylor responded, “The bridge is leading to an important destination. Lest we forget, it is built as the late Mrs. Ann Packwood reminded us: brick by brick.” And school board Trustee Tiffany Ford responded, “He is the best!”
Saunders, who was appointed deputy chief in 2012 and holds a BA in justice studies from Guelph University, told the media that when he revealed the news to his son, the 10-year-year told him he made history and “that is something they can never take away.”
Selected after a global search with an eye for a homegrown applicant – the civilian oversight board’s choice – Saunders, said, “I think as first Black chief in Toronto, it’s important to make sure I have the skills necessary to qualify for it.”
But, he added, “Being Black is fantastic. It doesn’t give me superpowers.”
He was the head the homicide unit and did not see himself as a trailblazer. His mantra is safety.
Referring to what police officers can expect from his time as chief, he said, “There will be change.”
Saunders has cultivated and earned the trust and respect of the rank and file and even that of the Police Association, which said in a statement, “We have to move forward on keeping our city safe and giving everyone that dignity they need in every encounter that they have.”
Saunders is serving a city where almost half the population identifies as part of a visible minority, so his appointment has a symbolic value and may signal to other communities to increase their willingness to engage with the police in a more positive manner.
The community can expect “a full-scale road map” for the future of Toronto Police in the next few weeks, according to Saunders, who was in charge of Specialized Operations Command where he oversaw 1,200 police officers and 164 civilian members with a budget of $175 million.
He also served with Professional Standards, Urban Street Gang Unit, Intelligence Division, Drug Squad, Community Safety Command, the Emergency Task Force and was unit commander of the largest homicide squad in Canada.
Saunders, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Organized Crime Committee, said, “I love this city for what it stands for, the face that we have over 140 different cultures and that we live peacefully together is a testament for the great citizens we have.
“They deserve the best police service in the world – a police service that is bias-free and whose members treat everybody with respect and dignity. You have my promise that I will do everything in my power to provide just that.”
Councillor Shelly Carol, who took part in the hiring process, noted “there was “very public campaigning for Deputy Peter Sloly and that his opponent ended up looking like the underdog. But he won the job with his ideas on bringing harmony to the force – and his race wasn’t a big factor.”