TORONTO — Three days after kneeling publicly in solidarity with anti-racism protesters in downtown Toronto, the city's police chief announced his plans Monday to step down this summer.
Mark Saunders, whose contract was set to expire in eight months, told a news conference he would leave his job on July 31. He said after decades of serving in the force, he wanted to spend more time with his family.
"I look forward to being a full-time dad and a full-time husband that's not an exhausted byproduct that walks through the door at the end of the day," he said.
The surprise announcement comes amid growing anti-racism protests triggered by the death of George Floyd — a black man who died last month in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes.
The protests that started in the U.S. have since spread to cities around the world, including Toronto, where thousands have taken to the streets to demand police reform.
Saunders, the department's first black chief, took over the organization in 2015 after three decades on the job, including many as a homicide detective.
The veteran officer, whose tenure at the helm has included clashes with some of the city's most marginalized communities, said he was not leaving with a heavy heart.
"Here I am after 37-plus years of serving what I believe to be the best law enforcement agency in the world," Saunders said. "I have watched this organization — from start to finish — grow, learn, listen, and serve the fourth-largest city on the North American continent and the most diverse city in the world."
Mayor John Tory thanked Saunders for his service.
"He has been a dedicated and responsible chief of police who has always worked to protect the city," Tory said. "He cares deeply about the people of the city, all of its neighbourhoods, and about the men and women who serve with him."
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Saunders' predecessor in the Toronto job, said on Twitter that Saunders served the city "admirably ... and will be missed."
Saunders was named chief in April 2015 and saw his term in the top post extended until 2021 despite some high-profile clashes with the city's LGBTQ community, particularly during the investigation of a serial killer who targeted men in the city's gay village.
Saunders drew particular ire by suggesting members of the community had failed to offer enough co-operation in the years leading up to Bruce McArthur's arrest and ultimate conviction on eight counts of first-degree murder. The force has since established a dedicated missing persons unit partially in response to the McArthur case.
Ongoing tensions have also led to members of the police force being barred from participating in the city's Pride parade in uniform. Pride Toronto did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Saunders also had a rocky relationship with the city's black community.
Syrus Marcus Ware, a core team member of Black Lives Matter — Toronto, did not mince words about the outgoing chief.
"We won't miss him, good riddance," Ware said. "His tenure proves that more diversity, or having a black police chief, does actually nothing and is a faulty way to approach the solution of the anti-blackness that is happening and rife within the police force."
A one-time Toronto mayor and long-time observer of policing in the city described Saunders' overall leadership as "disappointing," saying few significant policy changes took place under his watch.
John Sewell, co-ordinator of the Toronto Policing Accountability Coalition, said Saunders largely maintained the status quo. He cited the relationship between senior and rank-and-file officers, reliance on strip searches and lack of reform when dealing with residents in crisis as areas where policies have remained static during Saunders' tenure.
"He held his place as chief, but I'm not sure he made very much useful change," Sewell said.
During his five years on the job, Toronto saw a sharp rise in gun violence and homicides, culminating in a record number of shootings — 490 — in 2019. Saunders also oversaw the force's response to two of the city's worst instances of mass violence: the Yonge Street van attack of April 2018 and the Danforth shooting three months later.
On Monday, Saunders thanked the city for supporting the force, but also for those "buffer moments" when police actions were "questionable."
"You're the ones that came to the table to keep us in check whenever it was necessary."
Despite undergoing a kidney transplant in 2017, Saunders said his health was not a factor in his decision.
He said he would continue to work "for free" to help the city in his next venture.
"I see a lot of young black boys getting killed by young black boys and law enforcement deals with those symptoms," Saunders said.
"I want to help cure the disease."
Of late, the Toronto force has been the focus of growing criticism over its handling of those in mental health crisis, with many suggesting money from the police budget could be better used to support community programs.
Saunders said he was encouraged by the youth involvement in the latest protests in Toronto.
"This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us. We have to move past words — we're tired of the words. It's time to move to action," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.
Liam Casey and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press