Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders is stepping down from his job next month, he announced Monday.

“I have watched this organization from start to finish, grow, learn, listen, and serve the greatest, fourth-largest city on the North American continent and the most diverse city in the world,” Saunders said. “I have also met and made some of the best partnerships and friendships while in office of the chief.

“Therefore it is not with a heavy heart that effective July 31 of this year, I will relinquish my seat as chief of police of the Toronto Police Service.”

Saunders was hired as the city’s first Black police chief in 2015, with a mandate to modernize and streamline the service during a period that saw elevated levels of gun crime.

His tenure saw several years of increased homicide rates, going from 59 in his first year to 96 in 2018.

He also oversaw responses to two catastrophic events in the city’s history, including the 2018 North York Van Attack and the Danforth Mass Shooting.

Last year the Toronto Police Services Board extended Saunders’ term by another year, which meant that he was scheduled to keep the job until 2021.

Saunders said he made the decision to leave sooner in order to put family first.  

“Family is the most important thing to me right now. Sorry if anyone is shocked in a bad way. This organization is a really strong organization. I see lots of great things are going to happen,” he said, adding that he is very pleased with the command officers who are in their current roles.

“In my 37 plus years I’ve never had an August off. This is the first time I’ll have an August off with my family. I’m not sure what to do yet but I’m looking forward to it,” Saunders said.

Among his proudest achievements he listed the services’ transformational taskforce.

He said that while his announcement may come as a surprise to some, he feels he is leaving the service in good hands.

“In the environment we are in, we have COVID-19 and there’s no way I could leave this organization unless I was satisfied the men and women in this organization were in a safe spot,” he said.

Will continue working out of uniform

Saunders said while he’s not sure yet what will come next for him, he wants to volunteer in the city to continue making a contribution, particularly around gun violence.

“I see a lot of young black boys getting killed by young black boys,” Saunders said. “Law enforcement deals with the symptoms.”

He said he’d like to do something to help address the roots and is looking forward to being a “free agent.”

“Thank you Toronto. Look forward to working with you for the next two months,” he said, ending out the news conference.  

City reacts

It is not yet clear who will fill Saunders shoes when he steps aside, but the Toronto Police Services Board, which is responsible for appointing a chief, said there will be “no gap in leadership.”

“The Board will ensure that Torontonians see no gap in leadership, especially during this challenging time, and will be considering who will act in the role of chief after Chief Saunders’ departure on July 31,” the statement read.

It said the board is also developing a “comprehensive chief selection process” to find a replacement and that the process will involve meaningful consultation and input from the public.

In its statement, the board also thanked Saunders for his service and “incredible dedication.”

“As we get closer to his time with the service coming to an end, much more will be said about Chief Saunders’ extraordinary expertise as a policing professional and his commitment to moving the service forward as a progressive, compassionate and excellent organization,” the statement read.

Saunders said he told Mayor John Tory and the chair of the TPS board last week that he was planning to announce that he is stepping away from the role.

In a statement Monday, Tory thanked Saunders for his service, calling him a “dedicated” and “responsible” chief.

“On behalf of all Toronto residents, I want to thank Chief Saunders for his exemplary service,” Tory said in his statement. “He has led the women and men of the Toronto Police Service for the last five years – working to modernize the service and establishing community-focused policing. Prior to that he held just about every leadership position available in the Toronto Police Service.

“He has been a dedicated and responsible Chief of Police who has always worked to protect the city. He cares deeply about the people of the city, all of its neighbourhoods, and about the men and women who serve with him.”

Tory said the board will likely appoint an interim chief to manage TPS while they “accelerate” a search process that had already begun to find a new chief.

Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack, who was frequently at odds with the chief, said he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Saunders, but he respects him.

“By nature of the relationship, you’re going to have conflicts, which we did. When we didn’t like what the chief was doing, we made sure we stood up and made our voices heard, but that’s the nature of the business,” McCormack told CP24. “We respect each other. I’ve known Mark for many, many years and I just wish him all the love in the world.”

He said whoever takes over will need to have the confidence of officers and the public going forward.

Tenure marked by multiple challenges for police

In addition to dealing with elevated gun violence and mass killings in the city, Saunders’ tenure also coincided with a number of difficult challenges for the police service.

Those challenges included elevated tensions between police and the Black community, as well as with the LGBTQ community.

In 2016, Black Lives Matter staged a protest at the Toronto Pride Parade, demanding that uniformed officers not be allowed to participate, alleging that many Black and LGBTQ people feel unsafe around police.

The chief responded with a dialogue with Pride Toronto that lasted several years, though the issue has never been fully resolved.  

As the police investigation into the crimes of serial killer Bruce McArthur unfolded, there were also renewed question around how police had handled missing persons cases, particularly those which involved people associated with the LGBTQ community.

Saunders took criticism for saying in December 2017 that there was no evidence that a serial killer was walking the streets of Toronto. About a month later, McArthur was charged with first-degree murder in the killings of several of his victims – mostly men of colour from the gay community.

In response to criticism that complaints about missing men had been ignored, Saunders launched a review of how Toronto police handle missing persons cases.

With a reputation as a “cop’s cop,” Saunders was also often seen as having more skill around the technical aspects of the job than the political elements.

Asked Monday what he plans to do next, the chief joked “I’m becoming a politician,” a nudge at his dislike of the political elements of the job, and possibly also at his predecessor, Bill Blair, who now serves as Minister of Public Safety in the Trudeau government.

Most recently, Saunders won praise for meeting anti-racism protesters and taking a knee with them as anger unfolded around the world over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.