Chief Mark Saunders reflects on leaving the Toronto Police Service (Op-Ed Appeared in Toronto Star July 30):
As I prepare for private life after almost four decades with the Toronto Police Service, the last five years of them spent as Chief, I’m reflecting on where we are as a progressive police service — and what that means for our citizens, our young people, our racialized and vulnerable communities, and our members.
The discussions on defunding and the police role in mental health crisis situations are critical. I’m struck by the fact that young people are at the forefront of this reckoning, demanding change and insisting on a seat at the table.
It takes me back to my decision as a young Black man to become a police officer. I’ve always been driven to serve others. In the early years of my career, I saw policing in terms of its core elements — that through law enforcement and apprehending offenders, we could make the community safer.
We did, and we do, but I also saw that law enforcement isn’t often preventative. Instead, we deal with the negative outcomes of larger societal problems, rather than their root causes. I learned that if we were going to be part of discussions about those larger causes, we needed to reflect the communities we serve, and to have deep, trust-based relationships with those communities.
I wanted to be at the table where decisions were made, and in roles where I could shape change. As Toronto’s first Black Chief of Police, I brought my lived experience to the role in a way that wasn’t really part of the conversation before.
Once you’re in this seat, you realize a few things quickly and sometimes harshly. You learn about expectations, both your own and those of your communities. You learn where you can effect change, and where you need help doing so.
You learn that being an effective partner at the table — just like effective policing — is based on trust. Trust is built through our relationships. And building relationships requires an investment in communities and in people: choosing the right people, providing the right training, and building resilience and emotional intelligence. Underpinning all of that is ensuring a culture that evolves and can reflect the community’s expectations.
You also realize that the foundations of public trust in the police cannot be taken for granted and, in fact, can be lost in a minute. Or, perhaps in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as we all witnessed through the murder of George Floyd.
That single, tragic event, in another country, triggered a mass awareness of the need for rapid and disruptive change in how Black people are treated by police. In Toronto, and across Canada, it is the same — intense and painful reflection on the part of governments, citizens, and police officers, which has resulted in an urgent call for overdue change.
Which brings me to where we are today.
One of the many aspects of public trust is shown in our ability to reflect the city we serve. Toronto is diverse and constantly evolving. So must be the Toronto Police Service.
And ensuring that we are ready for the conversation about the future of policing has always been a focus of mine, as Chief. It’s what modernization and our The Way Forward vision have been all about.
I don’t have room here to describe the tremendous change initiatives we have delivered, but they include introducing neighbourhood community officers, a new Race-Based Data Strategy, best-in-class training for our officers (including on racial bias), as well as our transformational multi-year People Plan that focuses on diversity and inclusion, culture building, leadership, professional development, and performance excellence.
These are a deliberate part of the long-term strategic vision we developed with our partners through the Transformational Task Force, the community, and members of the TPS to better serve the people of Toronto.
It’s why the TPS, possibly more than any other Canadian service, is already at the table to discuss the future of policing. As a community, we can make constructive changes where Black, racialized, or vulnerable persons are treated with respect; where we talk about root causes like why a young Black man would pick up a gun in the first place; about how the community sees itself reflected in their police service; and finally how to continue to build a relationship that is strong and deep.
And so as I step away from this role and this organization after so many years, I want to say this: Be at the table. Bring your voices and your lived experiences. This is your city, and we are your Service. Together in partnership, we can keep Toronto the best and safest place to be.