When he applied to be Toronto’s top cop in 2015, Mark Saunders said he could be a “change manager,” stressing in his application letter that he knew how to balance community safety and front-line morale with instituting “necessary and innovative budget cutbacks.”
It was the task for which Saunders was hired: to manage change and help enact what the Toronto Police Services Board later unveiled as a modernization plan to “redefine” policing in the city.
Four years on, much remains to be done to fulfil that mandate, and other challenges have arisen. Saunders’s tenure as chief has seen an uptick in violent crime, controversies surrounding use of force by police, new carding regulations, the fallout from the handling of the Bruce McArthur case, and more.
After he was handed a contract extension last week — his run has been extended until 2021 — here’s a look at what’s on the chief’s to-do list.
Saunders was handed only the second extension given to a chief in 40 years (his predecessor, Bill Blair, was given a second five-year term in 2010). Police board chair Andy Pringle said the extra time was necessary for Saunders to provide the “stability in leadership” to continue to institute “The Way Forward,” the board’s wide-ranging transformation plan aimed at cutting costs, increasing public trust and overhauling police service delivery.
In a statement Tuesday, Pringle said Saunders has been “instrumental in leading the organization through a precedent-setting and complex period of transformation.”
The first year of Saunders’s tenure was spent developing that plan, which was rolled out in phases and finalized in January 2017. The report makes 33 recommendations, including changing the city’s divisional map, redesigning the force’s human resources strategy, shifting some services over to other providers, and making greater investments in technology.
As the board heard at a quarterly update on the modernization plan in May, nine of the 33 recommendations have been completed. The rest are in progress but some have hit major roadblocks.
“As can be expected with any complex transformation, we have also experienced some unanticipated challenges along the way, and have had to revisit our approaches with some initiatives,” Saunders said in the report.
Among the tasks accomplished: the dismantling of the controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) unit; the downloading of some non-emergency services, such as noise complaints and crossing guards, to the city; the disbanding of the transit control unit; and a pilot project experimenting with a new, more efficient officer schedule.
Recommendations in the midst of implementation are the connected officer initiative — which aims to further invest in technology to free police from paperwork — and the Neighbourhood Officer Program. The latter, a pilot project placing officers in specific communities, was last week praised by both Mayor John Tory and former board chair and Saunders critic Alok Mukherjee, who said he’d like to see the pilot project made permanent.
Other recommendations have fallen seriously behind, including the service’s plan to redesign the borders of its 17 divisions, instead of letting demand and changes to officer workload determine new division boundaries and the location of stations. According to a report card on the progress of each recommendation, the initiative was considered “at risk” of going off track.
David Soknacki, a former city councillor who helped develop the modernization plan, said he has also been disappointed at the lack of movement on changes to paid duty, which he called a “reputational hazard.” The plan called for a 30 per cent reduction of paid-duty assignments; the timeline of its implementation was determined to be “off track” in a recent report.
“I see that there’s chunks of important work that really have some good progress, (and) there’s areas that are just plain not moving along,” Soknacki said in an interview earlier this summer.
As the single biggest line item on the city budget, the cost of policing has dominated Saunders’s tenure. For the remainder, the pressure will be on to continue efforts to reduce it.
During the chief’s first three years in the job, the police budget fell below the $1-billion mark, and saw two years where no budget increase was sought. But this year, citing rising violent crime and depleted number of officers, Saunders asked the police board for an additional $30 million.
Approved by the board, the increase brought the budget back up over the $1-billion mark, and prompted criticism. Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, now with the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, told the board in a January deputation that it seemed “the police service is back to business as usual.”
“There is no justification for such a large increase at a time when all other departments are facing cuts, and more policing has not been shown to be the answer to the serious problems facing our city,” Sewell said.
One path to savings that was outlined in the modernization report was a three-year freeze on hiring and promotions. But the initiative was halted six months in, after the board said a greater number of officers had left the service than was expected.
Nonetheless, the freeze resulted in savings of $72 million, according to a report to the board filed in May.
In an interview, Tory acknowledged that this year’s operating budget had to increase to “open the relief valve,” but he stressed that more savings will come in the long term, as other changes from the modernization plan come info effect, including finding ways to use officers more efficiently.
The objective of the modernization plan has never been to simply cut costs or to never see a budget increase, he said. It has been to achieve a balance to “bring down as best one can the average increase in policing costs each year and secondly, at the same time, make sure you adequately police the city.”
“No one’s going to thank you for having some robust number you can report on, bringing policing costs down to zero every year, if the city is not deemed to be properly policed,” Tory said.
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Tackling violent crime, particularly shootings, has been and will continue to be a central challenge for Saunders.
Amid a high number of shootings this summer, Saunders has been increasingly visible and outspoken about the challenges of combating street gang violence. Earlier this summer, as the number of shootings hit a high not seen in five years, Saunders launched an 11-week, $4.5-million initiative that will see guns and gangs officers put to work in ways that will be determined through intelligence.
The Toronto police union and community advocates alike have criticized Saunders’s approach. Mike McCormack, head of the Toronto Police Association, has been vocal about what he says are low staffing levels, and claimed officers are overworked. On Twitter last month, he said gun violence has been “left unchecked.”
Other critics stress the importance of investing in social programs to address the root causes of crime. Saunders has repeatedly acknowledged that policing is only part of the equation — but Sewell says he could go much further by refusing to accept more money to purchase, for example, more CCTV cameras.
“A good police leader would say, ‘We need strong social programs. We got to stop spending money on us, the police, and start spending on social programs. That’s the way we’re going to deal with this issue.’ He doesn’t do that,” said Sewell.
Asked if Saunders could be trusted to fight crime in the city, Tory said unequivocally that he can — otherwise the board wouldn’t have extended his contract.
The guns and gangs situation is “incredibly complex,” but Saunders is both up to the job and has good people working for him across the city, Tory said.
“There is no magic solution to this … I wish the public had a chance to listen to (Saunders) perform inside the board meetings where he can, by definition, tell us more about what they are doing,” Tory said.
The issue long predated him, but Saunders nonetheless inherited challenges associated with a fractured relationship between police and Toronto’s Black community.
Saunders, the city’s first Black police chief, was called out by some in the Black community early in his tenure for expressing support for the controversial police tactic of carding. The practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of a crime disproportionately targeted Black and brown young men, and is now limited by provincial regulations.
Late last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released the results of an unprecedented data analysis, finding Black people are “grossly overrepresented” in Toronto police use-of-force cases, especially fatal shootings.
Following the inquest into the high-profile Toronto police shooting death of Andrew Loku, Saunders and the police board convened an anti-racism advisory panel, a committee examining any disparities in police service to racialized people, as well as the intersection of race and mental health.
Tory cited the committee as an example of “modernization in a different context” that has come about under Saunders’s leadership. The panel is working on “the restoration and rebuilding of trust, which had eroded over time,” he said.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto who focuses on policing and justice issues, said that in future, Saunders should work to implement the recommendations of the advisory panel.
“It’s my understanding that this panel is looking at a number of different things related to how the Toronto Police Service deals with and serves Toronto’s racialized communities and if Saunders wanted to leave some form of positive legacy,” this could be it, said Owusu-Bempah.