Saun­ders’ ap­pear­ance prompts com­plaint

New chief ac­cused of blur­ring line be­tween polic­ing and pol­i­tics


When he at­tended a cam­paign event for fed­eral Lib­eral can­di­date Bill Blair, po­lice Chief Mark Saun­ders vi­o­lated a pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tion and a po­lice board pol­icy pro­hibit­ing of­fi­cers from en­dors­ing a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date, the Law Union of On­tario al­leges.

Saun­ders blurred an “es­sen­tial sep­a­ra­tion” be­tween polic­ing and pol­i­tics when he ap­peared at a Tamil Cana­dian event in sup­port of Blair last month, says Toronto lawyer Jack Gem­mell, who filed a com­plaint Wed­nes­day to On­tario’s Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Po­lice Re­view Di­rec­tor (OIPRD) on be­half of the Law Union.

“In pretty well ev­ery democ­racy in the world, there is this care­ful de­lin­eation be­tween po­lice and the po­lit­i­cal process,” Gem­mell said in an in­ter­view.

“Once you start to blur that line, you’re get­ting into trou­ble, par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to the chief of po­lice.”

The event for Blair, who is seek­ing elec- tion in Scar­bor­ough-South­west, was held at the Toronto Hil­ton ho­tel on Aug. 28. Wear­ing a plain white T-shirt, Saun­ders made brief re­marks, then grinned for photos along­side his for­mer boss.

Photos were first pub­lished on the South Asian news site, along­side an ar­ti­cle stat­ing that Saun­ders “gives his vote of con­fi­dence to Bill Blair for a cab­i­net post.”

Toronto po­lice spokes­woman Meaghan Gray said Saun­ders could not com­ment on his ap­pear­ance at the event pend­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the com­plaint from the po­lice-over­sight agency.

A spokesper­son for Blair’s cam­paign said he would not com­ment be­fore Toronto po­lice re­sponded to the com­plaint, and did re­spond to the Star’s ques­tions about Saun­ders’ role in the event.

In a state­ment to the Toronto Sun last week, Saun­ders said he fa­cil­i­tated the event af­ter mem­bers of the Tamil com­mu­nity, who he came to know as unit com­man­der of 12 Di­vi­sion, asked to meet with Blair.

Saun­ders said no money was col­lected and there was no ad­mis­sion charge.

“I did not in­tend to blur the dis­tinc­tion be­tween my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as po­lice chief and pri­vate citizen,” Saun­ders told the Toronto Sun. “I will be more care­ful in the fu­ture.” Mem­bers of the Law Union say there needs to be a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Saun­ders’ at­ten­dance, and whether the chief ac­tively en­dorsed Blair — “my view is, that is a clear breach of the reg­u­la­tion on po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity,” Gem­mell said.

“It is crit­i­cal that a chief of po­lice not be in­volved or be seen to be in­volved in par­ti­san pol­i­tics,” reads the com­plaint to the OIPRD. “A chief is en­trusted with im­mense pow­ers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the po­lice force and its op­er­a­tion and acts in a quasi-ju­di­cial ca­pac­ity when hear­ing com­plaints against po­lice of­fi­cers.”

It’s not clear ex­actly what penalty Saun­ders would face if the com­plaint went to a dis­ci­plinary hear­ing and mis­con­duct was found.

Rose­mary Parker, spokes­woman for the OIPRD, said she could not com­ment on spe­cific cases, but said the Po­lice Ser­vices Act al­lows for any­thing rang­ing from a rep­ri­mand to dis­missal.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, po­lice of­fi­cers are barred from po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity un­der the province’s Po­lice Ser­vices Act, the law gov­ern­ing On­tario’s po­lice forces.

There are some ex­cep­tions: off-duty po­lice of­fi­cers who are not in uni­form can en­gage in some po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing at­tend­ing a meet­ing with can­di­dates in an elec­tion. They can also ex­press views on any is­sue not di­rectly re­lated to their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as po­lice of­fi­cers, “as long as the po­lice of­fi­cer does not as­so­ciate his or her po­si­tion as a po­lice of­fi­cer with the views, or rep­re­sent the views as those of a po­lice force.”

Gem­mell said one is­sue that could arise from the com­plaint is whether Saun­ders was on duty at the time of his ap­pear­ance. “Our po­si­tion is that he was, be­cause he’s on duty 24/7,” he said.

“The ruse of tak­ing off his po­lice shirt does not change this re­al­ity; it only makes his be­hav­iour a vi­o­la­tion of the po­lice dress code,” the Law Union states in the com­plaint.

The pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion also al­lows for of­fi­cers who have been au­tho­rized by the po­lice board or their chief to ex­press views on any is­sue “as long as the po­lice of­fi­cer does not, dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign, ex­press views sup­port­ing or op­pos­ing a can­di­date in the elec­tion.”

In 2010, the Toronto Po­lice Ser­vices Board took the ad­di­tional step of de­vel­op­ing its own pol­icy for mem­bers of the Toronto Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion. That in­cludes the stip­u­la­tion that the Toronto po­lice chief, ev­ery time an elec­tion cam­paign starts, “re­it­er­ate that po­lice of­fi­cers are pro­hib­ited from us­ing their sta­tus as po­lice of­fi­cers to en­dorse or op­pose can­di­dates.”

Po­lice board chair Andy Pringle did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment sent to his of­fice Wed­nes­day.

Gray, the Toronto po­lice spokes­woman, said Saun­ders had yet to pro­vide a re­minder to of­fi­cers about their lim­its on po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity dur­ing an elec­tion, but said it has been done in the past and the force in­tends to is­sue a re­minder dur­ing this elec­tion pe­riod.

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