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 Key2News.com, 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.