Far earlier than anticipated, in the midst of a widespread reckoning over policing — including controversies over anti-Black racism, officer use-of-force and billion-dollar budgets — the seven-member civilian Toronto police board is suddenly searching for a new leader.
And that’s without throwing a pandemic into the mix.
With Monday’s sudden resignation of outgoing Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, the top cop chair will be vacant by August, eight months early and amid impassioned — and mounting — calls for reform, reduced budgets and even the “abolishment” of policing as we know it.
At the best of times, the chief’s role is challenging to fill, traditionally requiring a candidate who can manage cops and politicians, commands the respect of rank and file — typically via years of frontline experience — and can uphold public trust. Now, with a blinding spotlight on policing and deafening calls for change, the task carries an ever-greater weight, and must contend with the possibility some may not want the pressure cooker job.
In other words, the stakes are high.
“We need a new chief that will recognize the gravity of the moment, and not waste the potential for meaningful progress that the current calls for reform provide,” says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto criminologist who researches policing and race.
The task of choosing the city’s next police chief falls to the board, including Mayor John Tory. The board had already hired an executive search firm, even before Saunders announced his resignation.
“I have hope that the board can read the room on this one,” Owusu-Bempah said. “If they don’t, they’ll lose more support and respect from an already skeptical public.”
The board assured in a statement this week that their selection process will include public consultation in a “meaningful and proactive way.”
John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said in an interview Tuesday that it wasn’t enough, calling on the board to upend the typical practice and suggesting they bring in an engaged and diverse group of community members to help make the decision. It may be the only way to bring in a change-maker, he said.
“We’ve got to get someone who can make systemic change. We haven’t had someone who can do that for a long time,” Sewell said.
That includes, first and foremost, selecting a chief that can accept some hard realities about anti-Black racism — including that members of the Black community are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by Toronto police than a white person, said Dr. Notisha Massaquoi, who has served as the Toronto police board’s co-chair of the anti-racism advisory panel.
“We need a police chief that understands that these are not mistakes or coincidences relegated to a few ‘bad cops,’ ” she said. “That this over-representation is a habit that is based on widespread systemic anti-Black racism in the Toronto Police Service.”
This chief, Massaquoi said, needs to “require the dismantling of the TPS as it now exists and that the lives of Black people in Toronto are worth doing that for.”
Audrey Campbell, former president of the Jamaican Canadian Association, agrees. As former co-chair of the Toronto police’s Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER), Campbell said she knows “first hand of the issues that officers and civilians are facing within the organization.”
“At this moment, we need someone with a deep understanding of anti-Black racism and how it manifests in law enforcement, and who will be courageous and willing to confront it head-on and address issues internally to dismantle it,” she said.
Since the creation of the Metro police department in 1957, the Toronto police board has always chosen an insider, whether it was a long-time cop like Saunders — who was with the Toronto police service for 37 years and “never switched jerseys,” he said Monday — or a former city cop who’d sought promotion at other services before returning to lead in Toronto, such as Julian Fantino, who headed York Regional Police Service before becoming top cop in 2000.
One potential candidate in the latter category was, until Tuesday afternoon, former Toronto deputy chief Peter Sloly, who in 2015 was perceived as the progressive option but was passed over in favour of Saunders’ ‘cop’s cop’ appeal. But he quickly quashed all speculation that he’d return to Toronto, tweeting that he “made a commitment to this City of Ottawa, the Board and the (Ottawa Police Service) members and I will fulfill that commitment.”
The calls for change could signal the desire to go outside policing altogether, said University of Toronto criminologist Julius Haag. There is a case to be made for appointing a civilian director or administrator to oversee the police, he said.
“If the city and the board are serious about defunding and disarming the police, then they need to appoint someone who shares that vision and has the experience and capability to implement it,” he said. “I question whether a candidate drawn from the police sector would fit that role.”
Several policing experts and community advocates stressed the vital importance of community policing, saying the next chief must embody a commitment and openness to structural changes that prize prevention over reactionary crime fighting.
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Traditionally within policing, chiefs have a background in “tough as nails” units, said Norm Taylor, a policing and public safety expert. The mentality there, he said, is that it’s more important for a police leader to spend time in these units than community policing.
“We need a leader who will recognize that community policing isn’t an adjunct to the job,” he said. “In Toronto, it is the job.”
Jennifer Chambers, executive director of Empowerment Council, an advocacy group for clients of addictions or mental-illness services, said the next chief “needs a sense of responsibility that extends beyond the service to the city as a whole.”
“Heads of organizations are often hired to be empire builders, but that is the last thing that Toronto needs of its police chief right now,” she said.
Chambers noted that a lot of police resources go to calls on people in crisis, but what these individuals need are community-based services.
“It is the perfect time for a chief who will go beyond lip service, to support services that could prevent people from being in crisis in the first place,” she said.
Post-pandemic, times will be especially hard, she said, “and some of the resources going to the police budget could help Toronto more going to meet basic human needs.”
But while many see the potential for change with a new chief, others say far more needs to be done to achieve significant reform.
“Change requires systemic subversion, not substitution at the top. You can’t subvert the system simply by replacing the chief,” said Annamaria Enenajor, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer.
“You have to look at where policing culture develops,” adding that the police union “has incredible power.”
Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said Monday that the board now faces a significant challenge attempting to find a chief whowill be both accepted by the rank and file and by the public.
It’s possible no such candidate exists — possibly because “the stars have aligned” in a way that makes it way easier to “radically” redesign society and move away entirely from the current policing model, said Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto and a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Hudson is calling for far bigger changes than a police chief swap — including “defunding” the police and creating an entirely new form of emergency service.
“We really have to stop deluding ourselves that who is at the top makes any difference,” she said.