Chief Mark Saunders remembers well the motto that hung in the room of his sister, Yvonne – an Olympic runner – reading: I will. I can. And I shall.
“And how reminiscent is that when it comes to policing,” the newly sworn-in Chief Saunders told hundreds gathered at the Toronto Police Service headquarters for the Change of Command Ceremony. “I will. Having the willingness to serve the people you’re sworn to protect. I can. Having the training and tools and skills necessary to be capable. And I shall. The action piece, acting on your willingness and acting on your training to keep our city safe.”
A decade ago, Saunders looked down from the third floor as Bill Blair was sworn in as Toronto Police’s new Chief.
Little did he know, then, that he would succeed Blair and become the city’s first black chief.
“That day, 10 years ago, there was never a thought in my mind that I would be standing here today,” said Saunders, who was sworn in on May 20 as Toronto’s 10th police chief. “…This is so surreal… But I have got to tell you it feels really great.”
Saunders said he learned many important lessons from Blair that he will use to guide him as he sets out on the challenging journey to lead Canada’s largest and most complex municipal police service.
“He taught me that you have to be thick-skinned and this is not a seat for the faint of heart,” he said. “He also taught me that you have to love the community that you are sworn to protect and the men and women that are dedicated to do just that.”
In accepting the office, Saunders acknowledged that policing is at a crossroads and under unprecedented scrutiny.
“The legitimacy and sustainability of policing are under challenge from those who believe it is both seriously flawed and too expensive,” he said. “The challenges have never been greater… History teaches us that the greatest opportunity for change often comes when the willingness and desire to change are matched by the urgency for change. We have seen recently events involving policing in other countries that have caused great anger and damage. If we take comfort because we believe it could not happen here, we have missed the point. Complacency is never acceptable. We have to make sure that we get it right from the very beginning. Every interaction we have with every member of the community collectively defines how the Toronto Police Service is seen by the community. They determine whether or not people are willing to help us to keep the city safe.
“That can make the difference between whether we succeed or fail. It is simply not acceptable to claim that the vast majority of interactions go well and only a few small numbers don’t. Good enough is simply not good enough. Every member of this Service has a personal responsibility to make sure that interactions with members of the community are marked by courtesy and respect. We have to ensure that our community engagements become smarter and surgical and that they are informed and guided by the latest and most accurate intelligence and they are guided by the law…We will do our best to minimize the social cost of our investigative efforts.”
He believes that body-worn cameras will provide unprecedented transparency in the Service’s interactions with community members.
The Service launched a one-year pilot on May 18, with 100 officers wearing the devices.
“During our extensive preparation, we consulted very closely with the privacy commissioner, the human rights commission and other community stakeholders as well as distributing over 20,000 public surveys,” he added. “We will get it right.”
With pressure on Toronto Police to find ways to make cuts to help balance the city’s budget, Saunders promised that the Service – under his command – will look at other shift systems and employment models that provide better coverage at a reduced cost and explore technological options to identify equipment that can perform specific functions more effectively at a significantly less cost than a police officer.
“One obvious example is a traffic camera,” he said. “It runs 24 hours, seven days a week and it never takes a holiday and is never sick.”
Ten-year-old Graham Saunders joined Blair in presenting a ceremonial sword of office to his father.
Blair expressed confidence that Saunders will serve the people of Toronto with distinction.
“He’s a man of integrity, he’s a man of courage and he’s a leader,” said Blair. “He has demonstrated those characteristics and that strength through his entire police career and I commend the board for his selection to take our police service forward.”
Saunders was the unanimous choice of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), which selects the Chiefs and Deputies.
Chair Alok Mukherjee, who swore in the new Chief, said the board listened carefully to community and Service members before making its decision.
“We heard that Toronto wanted a chief who would listen to the ideas and needs of the community, while partnering with the public in fulfilling its vision of a safe and functioning city,” he said. “People wanted a chief who understood the power of the public and the need for greater community mobilization. People wanted a chief who could respond to the constantly changing policing landscape, the fiscal challenges and the evolving technological needs and people wanted a chief who recognizes diversity in our city and in our Service and works to enhance, protect and strengthen it. The board is more than satisfied that it found these qualities in Mark Saunders.”
Mayor John Tory, who also sits on the TPSB, welcomed the new Chief.
“He was the unanimous choice of the board because we thought not only would he act out of love for the city he calls home, the people who live here and the men and women he now leads, but that he would also be able to best lead in the process of the modernization of policing and the renewal of policing-community relations and, above all, keeping our city one that is characterized by respect and by harmony and by safety,” said Tory. “I can tell you from my conversations with him, thus far, that he understands the depths of feelings that exist on some aspects, for example, of police-community relations… In his own careful and thoughtful way, he will listen, he will consult and he will act to ensure that every resident of Toronto can have confidence in their police service as they should and as they must. This is a goal that we share.”
One of six children, Saunders called his parents his "heroes" and credited his wife, Stacy, for her unwavering support over the span of his career.
Several family members, including Saunders’ wife Stacy, father Walter and older brother Horace, attended the historic swearing-in.
“This is historic in terms of Toronto having its first black police chief,” said Horace Saunders. “For me, it’s however a validation of someone who is talented and dedicated and uses facts and data to make important decisions. My brother understands emotion and has empathy for it and he’s a common-sense kind of guy who likes to do the right thing. I firmly believe he’s the right person to move this organization in the right direction.”
Horace Saunders said his brother is a multi-dimensional person who can easily relate with people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds.
“He was the athlete-of-the-year in public school and student council president in high school,” he added. “He was also a disc jockey on a radio show and at weddings and social occasions. He’s a fun guy, he’s a career guy and he’s a family guy. You can generally judge a guy by the number of friends he has and Mark has a ton of people that adore him.”
Saunders joined the Service in 1982 after initially applying to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“While I was waiting for a response from them, my brother suggested that I look at something closer, so I sent an application to Toronto Police and was accepted,” he said. “I got a positive response from the RCMP, which I declined after the Service sent me a congratulatory letter.”
Following assignments with the One District Drug Squad, the Emergency Task Force and the Fugitive Squad, Saunders – as the incident commander -- successfully spearheaded police responses during several large scale operations, including the 2009 Tamil and the 2012 May Day Occupy Toronto protests that involved methodically balancing community safety concerns with the right to peaceful protest.
He 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.
Three years ago, Saunders made the leap to deputy from acting 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.
Prior to that assignment, he was the first visible minority to head the Homicide Unit, where he instituted major structural changes in the two years he was there that resulted in improvements to the “solve rates” in death investigations.
Saunders is the second black man to head a Canadian police service after Jamaican-born Devon Clunis, who was appointed Chief of the Winnipeg Police Service in October 2012.