When Toronto's police services board formally announced Mark Saunders, a deputy police chief and 32-year veteran of the force, as the city's new chief on Monday, police association leader Mike McCormack hailed him as a "cop's cop." News networks and commentators dutifully parroted this description of Saunders—it served as a useful catchphrase for a man without a large media or community profile.
The message behind McCormack's "cop's cop" moniker is clear; he means that Saunders relates with rank-and-file officers and, more importantly, that he will be loyal to them and to the dominant policing culture in Toronto. Given how thoroughly our police have eroded public trust in recent years through their aggressive tactics, secretive decision-making, and resistance to civilian oversight, a cop's cop may well be the last thing Toronto needs now.
The trajectory of outgoing chief Bill Blair's career is helpful in understanding a chief's relationship with his force. A decade ago, Blair took over as top cop with an ambitious agenda, including a pledge to address racial bias among his officers. "The only way to fight the problem of racism in our service is by addressing it as part of the organizational culture," Blair said in 2005.
Blair, a highly educated veteran who started his career as a beat cop, spoke back then of his appreciation for urban writer and activist Jane Jacobs. He promised not to ask the police board for more money until he had conducted a spending review. Blair specifically rejected the idea that racism within his force was the result of a few bad apples. No one would have mistaken him for a "cop's cop"—a Globe and Mail reporter described then-police association head Dave Wilson as "cautiously optimistic" about Blair's appointment.
In the ensuing years, Blair and Wilson clashed frequently. Blair punished officers who staged a protest while wearing their weapons and uniforms, a move Wilson defended. The chief also came to power with a promise to make name tags mandatory for all officers. Although Blair eventually softened his position, the civilian board followed his lead and implemented the tags. When Wilson resigned in 2009, his successor McCormack was asked about Blair and replied bluntly, "I have questions about the police leadership."
Although bad blood between the police union and the chief may not seem ideal, it can be necessary when police resist public demands for reform and accountability. But Blair, who might rightly have been hailed as the "people's cop" in his early years, seemed to lose his edge as time wore on. The police brutality and misconduct now synonymous with Toronto's G20 summit in 2010 marked a turning point in Blair's reformist and stolid style.
When at least 90 local officers removed their name tags while on duty during the G20 protests, Blair's response was a token gesture of one day's loss of pay. Blair repeatedly cited the "criminal intent" of protesters—over a thousand of whom were arrested during the weekend and then released without charges—as the reason his officers used unprecedented force and brutal tactics against the public. He said nothing of the criminal intent of officers, who hid their identities in a climate where police were beating, tear-gassing, and arresting peaceful demonstrators.
When police faced criticism over their rampant use of strip searches—Toronto cops strip-searched a third of all the people they arrested in 2013—Blair countered that in 43 percent of cases, police found objects that could harm police or be used to escape police custody. A Toronto Star editorial noted that "[a]ccording to police, those objects included marijuana, cocaine, chains, belts, earrings, lighters, watches, hair ties, money and lip balm," and wondered why Blair would defend strip searches to find items that a less invasive pat down could uncover.
As Blair's public reputation deteriorated, his collaboration with McCormack and the police association seemed to increase. When the board recently received a damning report describing residents' outrage at "carding"—the dubious practice of stopping and documenting civilians who are not suspected of a crime—Blair stormed out of the meeting to address the media. McCormack conveniently appeared in the corridors of police headquarters to back up Blair, and to cast doubt on a report that confirmed police have been disproportionately carding residents with black and brown skin.
Blair may not have started out as a cop's cop, but he became one over time. As he has paid more heed to McCormack and the association, public confidence in him and in his force has increasingly been called into question. McCormack's comments about the incoming Saunders should serve as a warning that the chief designate is as susceptible to union pressure as Blair was. In order to restore the trust Blair and the force have lost, Saunders must demonstrate his loyalty not to his officers, but to the public he serves.
Follow Desmond Cole on Twitter.