Saunders says his own age, not anti-police sentiment, drove retirement decision
Published Tuesday, July 21, 2020 9:48AM EDT
Ten days away from his final day as chief of Canada’s largest municipal police service, Mark Saunders told CP24 the public’s increasingly negative view of police had little to do with his decision to leave his post early.
It had more to do with feeling like “the ‘old dude’ at the nightclub.”
Saunders’ tenure as chief saw the service respond to several years of increasing gun crime in Toronto, two mass casualty incidents in the North York van attack and the Danforth mass shooting, and an increasingly loud chorus of criticism of police services and the deaths of racialized people, especially in instances involving mental health crises.
Apart from that, Saunders spent months on the job quietly receiving dialysis ahead of a kidney transplant from his wife, Stacey.
But the public’s perception of police has changed in recent months, prompting Saunders’ counterpart in Durham to say publicly earlier this month he feels there hasn’t been a harder time to wear the uniform in his lifetime.
Saunders said Tuesday that he felt he worked hard to foster feelings of trust with the public, but understood it could all be lost in an instant.
“When you want to expand on relationships – you have to repeat the same message 10,000 times for in order for it to be really heard by a few. It takes a very, very long time to build trust and it takes a very short time to lose public trust.”
He said that as a Black man in charge of a large urban police service, he understood where the distrust comes from.
“As a Black man I do come with a lived experience, I understand what the concerns and why the concerns are there and why certain changes need to take effect.”
Those certain changes differ drastically depending on whom you ask.
The Black Lives Matter movement, supported by some municipal councillors in Toronto, have widened their focus from accountability and deterring police brutality to actually structurally changing law enforcement.
They want police services to be “defunded” and the money diverted to alternative means of community safety or an entirely new service designed to respond to people suffering from mental health crises.
Saunders did not speak to the idea of defunding but said his effort to embed police more closely in specific communities through the neighbourhood officer program was an example of his efforts to make the service more focused on community and building public trust.
He said cameras were installed in all patrol cars in the Toronto Police Service and said the service’s delayed body-worn camera program, first seenas a pilot project in 2017, may take shape soon.
Saunders conceded the attitude toward policing has shifted recently.
“What we have right now is a lot of emotion, a lot of fear, a lot of anger. People don’t want incremental change, they want change to happen now, and we see steps being taken toward that.”
But he insisted the changes in public sentiment brought on recently had no bearing on his decision to retire at the end of this month instead of next year.
“It was mostly family,” he said. “After 38 years as a police officer, I am at the point where I am the ‘old dude’ at the nightclub.”
As for what’s next, Saunders reiterated he’s not sure what he will do next, but that it will likely involve counselling young Black men who are on the wrong path.
“Working with high risk offenders in Black community – I want to help them not get into the path that leads them in to a gun in hand and a death at the end.”