Saunders made the announcement at a news conference at Toronto police headquarters Monday afternoon.
“I’ve always given it 100 per cent and it’s time to say thank you Toronto,” he said.
“Thank you Toronto for working with me during my tenure as the 10th chief of police for the Toronto Police Service. It is something I will cherish forever.”
The surprise news came less than a year after the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) announced it was extending Saunders’ contract until 2021 despite some high-profile clashes with Toronto’s LGBTQ2 community, particularly during the investigation of serial killer Bruce McArthur who targeted men in the community.
Saunders said he told the mayor and chair of the TPSB of his plans to step down at the beginning of June.
His resignation came amid recent calls to defund part of the Toronto police budget as well as peaceful protests in response to anti-Black racism and the death of George Floyd in the United States in May.
He didn’t reveal what specifically led to his decision and said there were a “whole host of reasons.” Saunders said he received calls recently about working for an extended term and “had to put it to a stop.”
Saunders praised the involvement of youth in recent protests in Toronto. On Friday, he and the service’s deputy chiefs met with protesters and took a knee in solidarity.
“They’re coming to the table. This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us,” he said.
“We have to move past words. We’re tired of the words. Now it’s time to move towards action.”
He told reporters he wants to work with community initiatives in Toronto and said he wants to be more involved with his family.
“I’m still here for another two months. It’s not like I’m walking off into the sunset. There’s still some things that need to be tackled,” Saunders said, adding his family is the most important thing.
“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.”
In 2017, Saunders received a kidney from his wife Stacey after battling kidney disease. However, he said health wasn’t a factor in his decision and that he was feeling good.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon by the TPSB, it thanked him for his service. It is up to the TPSB to select a new chief of police. The statement said the hiring process is underway.
“The board will ensure that Torontonians see no gap in leadership, especially during this challenging time and will be considering who will act in the role of chief after Chief Saunders’ departure on July 31,” the statement said.
“The board is also developing a comprehensive chief selection process to appoint the next chief for the Toronto Police Service, a process that will incorporate public consultation and input in a meaningful and proactive way.”
Mayor John Tory, who also sits on the TPSB, issued a statement shortly after Saunders’ news conference and thanked him for his service.
“He has led the women and men of the Toronto Police Service for the last five years – working to modernize the service and establishing community-focused policing,” he said.
“He has been a dedicated and responsible chief of police who has always worked to protect the city. He cares deeply about the people of the city, all of its neighbourhoods, and about the men and women who serve with him.”
When asked about regrets and highlights during his tenure as chief, Saunders said he couldn’t think of any regrets. However, he said he was proud of the work done as part of the service’s transformational task force.
“Now you fast-forward to today, look at where we’re at. This is exactly where we are. This is what the community is demanding. They want more ownership of what law enforcement needs to look like,” Saunders said.
He was appointed chief in 2015 and has worked for Toronto police for more than 37 years. Saunders was also the service’s first Black police chief.
Before becoming chief, he oversaw the guns and gangs, homicide and sex crimes units. Saunders was worked as an officer in the homicide and drug squads.
— With files from The Canadian Press