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Criticism of police in wake of protests "more than fair," Toronto police chief says
Published Thursday, June 4, 2020 6:26PM EDT
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders acknowledged Thursday some of the criticism law enforcement agencies have been receiving in the wake of the high-profile killing of George Floyd, saying they are "more than fair."
Speaking to reporters, Saunders said the video of a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck while he was pleading for his life bothered him.
"I have kids, and I'm running the organization as chief. That is not what law enforcement is trained to do. We're there to preserve life. We're there to enhance community safety," Saunders said.
He said the incident is not representative of the majority of law enforcement members in North America.
"There isn't any law enforcement officer that I can think of who didn't have a horrible feeling in their stomach when they saw what happened to George Floyd. It still bothers me," Saunders said.
The chief addressed a number of issues during the press conference, including the relationship between police and the black community, reports of protests in the city this weekend, calls for defunding the police, and the use of body-worn cameras.
Toronto police have been under the spotlight after the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her apartment balcony on May 27 while officers were present.
The family of Korchinski-Paquet previously said her death could have been prevented. The Special Investigations Unit, the province's police watchdog, is investigating the incident.
Saunders did not address the incident, but he said police are working to build the trust with the community over the past few years.
He noted that since he became chief, there has been enhanced training to understand the different lived experience of all the community members. He said he understands that anti-Black racism is "not words, it's a reality."
"'I'll tell you, there are times when we had it wrong, and they called us out on it, and we made those changes. So, it's not just by listening. It's also by action," he said.
On Saturday, thousands marched through Toronto demanding justice for Korchinski-Paquet. Saunders thanked residents for their "tremendous patience, tolerance, anger, and despair" in the past few days, saying all protests in the city have been peaceful so far.
"We, as members of the Toronto Police Service, are also grieving at the recent events, but we are hoping that as a community, we can all continue to work together. We will listen. We will continue through words and actions to help restore any public trust that is fractured, especially when it comes to anti-Black racism," Saunders said.
Several downtown businesses have boarded up this week in anticipation of possible protests this weekend. However, when asked about any information regarding the demonstrations, Saunders refused to share any specifics.
"We do as law enforcement have a lot of information, a lot of intelligence, which I'm not going to disclose to the public, but I'm going to urge that we continue to be Torontonians. And I'm going to urge that we continue to have a peaceful protest. And I urge that this is about making our city a better place."
Chief says he wants to see body-worn cameras
The use of body-worn cameras also came up during the news conference.
Saunders said police have been working on implementing their use for years and have been working with multiple stakeholders, including the privacy commissioner, to make it happen.
Saunders said the cameras will add transparency between the police and the community by providing an objective account of incidents.
He said the police are "near the finish line" and that the cameras will be rolled out soon.
"I have been pushing hard. I want this done. Now, people are talking. They want this. I want this. It will help with building the relationships that are necessary if we're going to keep the city safe," Saunders said.
Thousands have signed an online petition demanding Toronto police to wear body cameras in the wake of Korchinski-Paquet's death.
‘Naive’ to think about lowering the police budget
Growing calls for defunding the police also prompted Saunders to address the more than $1 billion TPS budget, which includes the hiring of additional uniformed officers and the implementation of body-worn cameras.
One reporter suggested some of the police budget might be better used if put towards mental health services as a way to avoid deadly interactions between police and those struggling with mental illness.
In response, Saunders said it is "naive" to reduce the number of police officers given the violent crime that the city still sees.
"If you look at the numbers of the gun violence that's there, the numbers are high," Saunders said.
"The fact that when we talk about gun violence and the number of handguns that are here and the number of guns that are being used right now, we've got a responsibility. We've got a role. And that role is to keep the community safe."
Saunders noted that the budget is created in consultation with the community.
"We are transparent in our spending. We are cognizant of our role in helping the city's goals of providing the necessary resources for every Toronto citizen," he said.
"And we will continue to explore future opportunities and we will continue to work with the community when it comes to the discussion on budget."
- with files from The Canadian Press