NEWS

Mark Saunders, Toronto's Next Police Chief, Makes History

04/20/2015 04:05 EDT | Updated 06/19/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - A 32-year veteran of the Toronto police force became the first black man named to its top job on Monday but said his race doesn't mean he can magically repair the enduring strains with people of colour in the city.

"Being black is fantastic (but) it doesn't give me super powers," chief-designate Mark Saunders joked at a news conference.

"If you're expecting that all of a sudden that the earth will open up and miracles will happen, that's not going to happen."

What will happen, Saunders promised, is much more open dialogue than has happened in the past.

Saunders, 52, was the winning candidate after an international search that led right back to headquarters. He succeeds Chief Bill Blair, who retires this week after the city opted against renewing his second five-year contract.

Saunders takes over at a time of tension over "carding" — a police practice of stopping people on the street for questioning. Visible minorities, especially black youth, have long complained they are disproportionately targeted for the stops — a complaint statistics have borne out.

He promised no immediate changes, but said community trust determines whether police succeed or fail.

It's important, he said, to ensure public safety but also to "minimize the collateral damage" while working toward bias-free policing that treats everyone with respect and dignity.

"You have my promise that I'll do everything in my power to provide that," he said.

Ellie Adekur-Carlson, chairwoman of the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, expressed skepticism, saying Saunders has been in charge of programs that targeted blacks and other people of colour.

While many of those people view the appointment of a black person as a symbolic win, Adekur-Carlson said Saunders' real challenge will be to reach out to "occupied" communities that experience daily police harassment.

"It's one thing to promise the dialogue, but it's another thing to actually do it," she said.

Saunders will also feel pressure to rein in a budget of more than $1 billion for a force that comprises about 5,500 uniformed officers and another 2,500 civilians.

Blair gained national recognition for his clashes with former mayor Rob Ford. He was also chief during the infamous G20 summit in June 2010 when police came under severe criticism for mass arrests and civil rights violations.

Mayor John Tory said Saunders was the police board's unanimous choice to succeed Blair.

"The candidates from outside of the city underlined the excellence of the people that were from our own police service as candidates," Tory said.

Alok Mukherjee, the head of the police services board, called Saunders a credible and inspiring leader who is expected to bring "real change."

Saunders, who has four children ranging in age from 10 to 26, was born in the U.K. to Jamaican parents and immigrated to Canada as a child.

He currently heads the special operations command with its 1,200 officers and 164 civilians, which includes the homicide squad, sex-crimes unit, and guns and gangs task force.

Saunders said the implications of his appointment as the first black to lead the force sank in during a chat with his 10-year-old son.

"He said to me, 'You know, Dad, that's history and that's something they can never take away from you'," Saunders said.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect first name for Ellie Adekur-Carlson.