Garda’s new Canadian policing ‘star’ is a progressive reformer

Former Toronto deputy chief Shawna Coxon faces step up to Garda second-in-command

Shawna Coxon departs Toronto Police Service for the second most senior job in An Garda Síochána having been tipped to take the top job in the Canadian force only for recent management changes to work against her, sources say.

A number of people familiar with her policing career in Canada say she is regarded as a very progressive and professional officer who has long been considered a policing star in Toronto.

“You certainly won’t find any dirt on Shawna Coxon because there’s none; absolutely nothing at all. She’s just not that kind of person,” says one source.

Others say she carved out a niche in police reform, rather than as a renowned crime investigator; a woman who rose through the police ranks as she continued her academic studies and lectured in university.


She is perceived to have had a very smooth working relationship with the former chief of police Mark Saunders, with many believing she was Saunders's preferred successor. He retired early last summer, succeeded by interim chief of police James Ramer.

The appointment of a new chief has become a protracted and sensitive issue, as it coincides with calls to defund the police in Toronto and comes at a time when 80 recommendations to modernise the force are still being implemented.

Racially charged anti-police sentiment was ramped up last May when Regis Korchinski-Paquet (29), a black woman, fell 24 storeys from her apartment building to her death after the police had gone there amid reports of a serious domestic disturbance.

Her family have accused the police of playing a role in her death, though the officers present have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Against that complex backdrop, and because a public consultation must take place, it is possible a new chief will not be appointed until next year. And that appears to have hastened the departures of both Coxon and fellow deputy chief Barbara McLean. Coxon, McLean and Hong Kong-born Peter Yuen were all appointed to the position of deputy chief at the same time, in August 2017, in a bid to modernise the Toronto force.

The star

Coxon was the least experienced and youngest of the trio and regarded as the star of the group – for modernisation and academic prowess rather than crime investigation. With the Garda having gone through years of scandals – though that has lessened in more recent times – one source in Toronto says the “pivot towards change” period the Garda is going through will have proven very attractive to Coxon.

Her appointment as deputy commissioner, the second most senior position in the force, was confirmed by Government this week. Assistant Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon has been appointed to the other deputy commissioner post having been "acting" in that role for some time. The appointments mean that, for the first time, two women fill both deputy commissioner posts in the Garda. Both will be in the running to take over the top job from Commissioner Drew Harris at the expiry of his five-year term, half of which remains.

However, not everyone in An Garda Síochána will welcome Coxon's appointment, which follows Harris's appointment in September 2018 from the PSNI and the appointment last year of Assistant Commissioner Paula Hilman, also from the PSNI.

Sources in the Garda stress there is no personal animosity towards Harris or Hilman, and they believe the same will apply to Coxon. However, the appointment of “outsiders” is still regarded as blocking promotional prospects and demoralising. Others say there are fears the appointment of people from outside the Garda is only beginning and will accelerate.

Coxon, believed to be the first Canadian to join the Garda, will not take up her post until April. The job is a big step up. Unlike the Toronto Police Service, the Garda is a national force charged with State security in a country with a lingering and serious terrorism threat.

As a national police force, the Garda is also much bigger than the Toronto force; 14,500 sworn officers and almost 3,500 civilian staff in the Garda compared with about 5,500 police officers and about 2,200 civilian staff in Toronto. All police officers in Toronto are also armed.

Her salary will marginally increase, from about €150,000 in Toronto to about €170,000. Coxon has been leading the Toronto service’s human resources command, and her own LinkedIn profile describes her as being “known for her continuous innovation and commitment to policing modernisation in a rapidly changing, increasingly globalised world”.

Specialist areas

She previously “oversaw the reactive and proactive policing response of all 16 police divisions in the city of Toronto”, which included all front-line policing, community and neighbourhood policing, as well as the investigation functions at Toronto’s police divisions.

Coxon, who is 49, joined the Toronto Police Service in 1996 and had risen to the position of deputy chief after just 21 years’ service. She started by working in front-line policing in downtown Toronto, followed by more specialist areas such as vice, child abuse, child sexual assault and youth crime.

She has a BA in psychology, an MA in criminology and a PhD in law and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Guelph-Humber for 14 years.

When she takes up her role in the Garda she will find a number of changes the Toronto force has already undergone, or are about to commence, are planned or under discussion as part of the ongoing reform programme in the Garda; something that undoubtedly helped her secure the Garda job. She has, for example, been very vocal and visible for years promoting LGBTQ+ rights and more recently speaking out to remember people who have lost their lives following transphobia. In Ireland, 2019 was the first time gardaí in uniform took part in Pride.

Other changes she has been involved in include the rollout of body-worn cameras, the collection of use-of-force data and stop-and-search data – including how it breaks down on ethnic lines.