TORONTO — Three days after Toronto’s police chief took a knee outside headquarters with protesters calling for reform, Mark Saunders announced his plans Monday to step down this summer.
The surprise announcement comes amid growing protests around the world about the treatment of black people by law enforcement, including the Toronto force’s own checkered history.
Saunders, the department’s first black chief, took over the organization in 2015 after three decades on the job, including many as a homicide detective.
During a news conference Monday, he did not provide reasons for the timing of his decision, other than wanting to spend more time with his family.
“I look forward to being a full-time dad and a full-time husband that’s not an exhausted byproduct that walks through the door at the end of the day,” he said.
Saunders, whose contract was set to expire in eight months, said he’ll instead step down on July 31.
The veteran officer, whose more than five-year tenure at the helm has included clashes with some of the city’s most marginalized communities, said he was not leaving with a heavy heart.
“Here I am after 37-plus years of serving what I believe to be the best law enforcement agency in the world,” Saunders said. “I have watched this organization — from start to finish — grow, learn, listen, and serve the fourth-largest city on the North American continent and the most diverse city in the world.”
Mayor John Tory thanks Saunders for his service.
“He has been a dedicated and responsible chief of police who has always worked to protect the city,” Tory said. “He cares deeply about the people of the city, all of its neighbourhoods, and about the men and women who serve with him.”
Saunders was named chief in April 2015, succeeding now-federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. His term in the top post was extended until 2021 despite some high-profile clashes with the city’s LGBTQ population, particularly during the investigation of a serial killer who targeted men in the community.
Throughout his tenure, Saunders also saw a record number of homicides in 2018 — 96 — along with year-over-year surging gun violence, culminating in a record number of shootings — 490 — in 2019.
The chief offered words of praise for Toronto when announcing his plans to step down.
“I want to say thank you for giving us time, giving us those buffer moments whenever you thought our actions were questionable,” he said.
“You’re responsible for solving most of the cases that were presented in this city…. You’re responsible for working us through the good, the bad, the indifferent. You’re the ones that came to the table to keep us in check whenever it was necessary.”
Despite undergoing a kidney transplant in 2017, Saunders said his health was not a factor in his decision.
He said he will continue to work “for free” to help the city in his next venture.
“I see a lot of young black boys getting killed by young black boys and law enforcement deals with those symptoms,” Saunders said.
“I want to help cure the disease.”
Of late, the Toronto force has been the focus of growing criticism over its handling of those in crisis, with many calling to take money away from the police budget and put it toward community programs.
Saunders did not discount the idea, so long as there were other programs in place to help out those in need.
“What I liked about the protest is we’ve got our young engaged,” he said of the recent wave of demonstrations.
“Now it sounds like the youth are there, they know what they need, now they’re coming to the table. This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us. We have to move past words — we’re tired of the words. It’s time to move to action.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.
Liam Casey and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press