COLUMN: Police-muzzling accusations may haunt McCallum in Surrey bid

It’s always been Doug McCallum’s thing to run for mayor on a law-and-order platform, and this latest campaign is no exception.

Last week McCallum, who served as Surrey’s mayor from 1996 to 2005, introduced his $21-million, six-point public safety platform and his four Safe Surrey Coalition running mates for city council.

During the big reveal, reporters received Safe Surrey’s inaugural press release proclaiming that the city "is faced with an ongoing crime wave that is being met with inaction" by the current council they aim to replace.

McCallum himself cited a survey indicating that for 51 per cent of Surrey residents, crime is their number-one issue of concern. We need more cops and bylaw officers, he said.

"We will launch a public awareness campaign to encourage our community to also be a partner in driving crime from our communities," he declared, notably.

Safe Surrey Coalition’s website contains a manifesto of guiding principles that cover such topics as "assurance of public safety" and accountability. Guiding principle No. 2 holds that, "Public engagement and access to information comprise the foundation of a legitimate government."

Hard to disagree with that. Right?

While some of his running mates have never sought public office until now, McCallum has a political record to be mined.

Roughly midway through his nine-year run as mayor, McCallum was accused of leaning on the Surrey RCMP to suppress information it released to the public – in effect, trying to boost Surrey’s image by censoring press releases about crime in the city.

McCallum denied this up and down, but still proffered a public apology of sorts.

It all began with rumours, which led to fingerpointing and a flurry of newspaper headlines, like "RCMP asked to keep city’s crime woes under wraps," "Mayor denies cop gag order: E-mail hints otherwise," "Mayor denies trying to stop RCMP press releases on crime in the area," "Keeping the lid on crime news," "McCallum contacted RCMP about Surrey image," "Surrey Mounties vow they won’t be gagged by mayor" and, finally, "Mayor sorry for meddling with police."

Reporters and a local MP began to wonder why they weren’t receiving press releases from the RCMP about shootings and stabbings in Surrey, like they had in the recent past. Likewise, residents began wondering why they weren’t reading in the newspapers stories about serious crimes they knew to have occurred in their neighborhoods.

The public has a right to know when shots are fired, MP Chuck Cadman told a Province reporter. "People have to be aware of what’s going on around them so they can address it," he said. That same story cited a senior RCMP source who, on condition of anonymity, claimed McCallum had pressured police into withholding bad news about crime in Surrey. "McCallum doesn’t like any kind of negative story about crime, period," the senior cop charged.

And then, an email surfaced. A city staffer in McCallum’s office had sent it to a senior Surrey RCMP officer months earlier, saying the mayor wanted to know why the RCMP issued a press release about a particular shooting. The superintendent replied, also by email, that residents had been evacuated from their homes, a command post had been set up, "and this was a very public event."

"A press release was properly made public," the officer noted.

McCallum denied trying to muzzle the police, saying the email was just a request for info. Still, the RCMP media headquarters in Vancouver claimed he had expressed concern that crime stories may frame Surrey in a negative light.

McCallum tried to end the controversy by reading out a statement at an open council meeting. "I am determined to see that Surrey receives due recognition and is fairly portrayed," he said.

"If in my passionate pursuit of these goals I caused anyone to feel my actions were out of line, for that I am truly regretful."

That was in 2002. McCallum was heading into his third election run, again on a law-and-order platform, and Surrey had just been dubbed the car-theft capital of North America, followed by Phoenix, Arizona.

Yes, that was a long 12 years ago. But…

Any effective campaign against crime requires full disclosure of the problem, and anything short is merely smoke and mirrors.

McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition still have roughly nine weeks leading up to the Nov. 15 civic election to convince voters that accusations of muzzling and censoring police will remain in the past and won’t be an issue should they form Surrey’s next civic government.

Tom Zytaruk is a staff reporter with the Now. He can be reached at tzytaruk@thenownewspaper.com.

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