Tough lessons, learned as early as elementary school, have put Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders in a position to see the city through a lens much different than any of his predecessors.
Last May, he was appointed the city’s first black top cop.
At a community reception on September 23, at the Jamaican Canadian Association Centre to celebrate his historic promotion, Saunders said he never expected the importance of resilience he learned in Grades three and five would serve him well, later on in life.
As the only black student in his grade three class in Milton, Saunders recalled having to sit through sessions while the teacher read from the book, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” that was withdrawn from Toronto schools in 1956.
“As my teacher read the story, I had to decide whether to crawl under the table, jump out the window, or just stare right at the teacher,” said Saunders, who joined the TPS in 1982, after initially applying to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “I chose the third option.”
In grade five, he was subjected to classroom readings from Mark Twain’s classic novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which have divided readers over the years because of its racial stereotyping.
“It was tough,” said Saunders. “When people are laughing and heckling at you because of something you have done, there is a possibility you can understand. But when people laugh and heckle at you because of who you are, then that is much deeper and you really have to have a strong constitution.
“I was fortunate to have parents who taught me that, and it’s part and parcel of who I am as a human being. So, when I am criticized by the media, and people who don’t know me that think I have taken a journey that was easily paved and that I don’t understand the complexities or any of that, I don’t take offence. That’s not my role. My role as chief is to make sure that anyone who visits, lives or works in Toronto is safe.”
Saunders made the move to chief from deputy where, among other things, he was the Pan Am/Parapan Games executive sponsor and head of specialized operations. Prior to that, he was superintendent and unit commander at 12 Division, where he combined a powerful uniformed enforcement presence with a strong investigative component and a clear emphasis on community investment and customer service.
The veteran officer was the first visible minority to head Homicide, where he instituted major structural changes in the two years he was there, that resulted in improvements to the “solve rates” in death investigations.
As incident commander, he successfully spearheaded police responses during several large-scale operations, including the 2009 Tamil and this year’s May Day Occupy Toronto protests that involved balancing community safety concerns with the right to peaceful protest.
Saunders was also responsible for restructuring how the Service gathers, processes and distributes street gang intelligence in his role as section head of the Intelligence Operations urban gang unit and he co-chaired the Black Community Consultative Committee.
Mayor John Tory, also a member of the Toronto Police Services Board, said Saunders had all the attributes they were looking for in a leader to succeed Chief Bill Blair who held the post for a decade.
“Our choice was unanimous because we found somebody that fits the characteristics we were looking for,” he said. “Those were authenticity, legitimacy, credibility and sensitivity. We were also looking for somebody who is committed to change because we understood we had to make the changes that are necessary to ensure that trust is strengthened and, in some cases, renewed, between the police and the community. Also, we had to make sure that that individual was committed to change and understood the fact that you have to find new ways to do that at a reasonable cost.
“From my perspective, as the Mayor of the city and a member of the Toronto Police Services Board, I think he’s settling in very well…His heart is in the right place. He knows the city and he loves it. He knows the people and loves them and he knows policing.”
The JCA, the Black Business & Professional Association, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) and A-Supreme Foundation organized the community reception.
“As we celebrate this historic appointment, barriers still exist and I am pleading with our Chief to work with our community to build strong bridges,” said JCA president Barry Coke.
BBPA president Pauline Christian said Saunders’ appointment is “a symbol of inspiration for young people, particularly blacks” while A-Supreme Foundation president and Black Community Police Consultative Committee member Yvette Blackburn told Saunders the community will hold his feet to the fire if he slips.
“We know that you bear a heavy load,” she said. “We know you have taken some hits already, but we know your shoulders are broad. We will hold you accountable…Every criticism and critique will make you stronger and better…We ae here for you and we want you to work with us. As a black male, we represent you and you represent us and we will put you on our shoulders to make sure you are held high.”
OBHS president Rosemary Sadlier, Member of Parliament Judy Sgro, Jamaica’s Consul General Lloyd Wilks and TPS Acting Deputy Chief Jim Ramer also spoke at the reception.
“During the selection process, there were many media accounts about Mark being someone who is an unknown quantity and some were even speculating whether or not he would be the right choice for Chief,” said Ramer. “Having known and worked very closely with him, that’s a testament to what is really Mark Saunders. He’s a very modest individual, who prefers to talk about the accomplishments of the people he works with rather than the successes he has personally been involved in. He’s a people’s person and a good listener.”
The Chief’s wife, Stacy, and their son, Graham, accompanied him to the celebratory event.