Surrey mayoral candidate Brenda Locke has pledged to stop the city’s policing transition “in its tracks,” if she is elected to office with a sufficient backing on council on Oct. 15.
But is it actually doable?
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth told the Now-Leader in February 2020 that while he’s “under no illusions” that many Surrey residents do not want to see the Surrey RCMP replaced with a city police force, the City of Surrey has the right and the authority to determine its policing model.
“It’s laid out in the Police Act. They are the ones who get to decide what kind of model they want,” he said at the time. Farnworth on Aug. 22, 2019 gave the city the go-ahead to pursue the plan.
We posed the question to some movers and shakers this week if a new council could halt the transition. Farnworth has not returned a request for comment, nor has his ministry shed light on the matter.
“While we cannot speculate on the actions of any future council, it’s important to note that the transition is now well underway and this work has progressed significantly,” a provincial government public affairs officer responded in an email “attributable to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.”
At Surrey council’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 5th, 2018, it served notice to the provincial and federal governments it would end its contract with the RCMP – which has policed these parts since May 1, 1951 – to set up its own force. Locke argues that putting the brakes on the transition makes good fiscal sense.
“If we project the next 10 years, staying with the RCMP is going to save the City of Surrey probably $250 million,” Locke, a Surrey Connect councillor, recently said.
Asked if it is possible to reverse the process at this stage, Terry Waterhouse – Surrey’s general manager of the policing transition – declined to comment.
But Coun. Doug Elford, of the Safe Surrey Coalition, and Garry Begg, a retired Surrey RCMP officer and sitting NDP MLA for Surrey-Guildford, have their doubts.
“My understanding under the law it’s not even possible,” Elford said.
“The train’s left the station, we’re well on our way. It’s not even a transition any more, we’re building up. She needs a majority on council to do this too, right, I mean there’s a lot of things that have to happen. You just can’t get elected mayor and just wave your magic wand, she needs a full majority to get on there and even just to attempt it, from what I gather it’s next to impossible. I’m looking forward to just moving ahead with this, getting beyond this.
“I’m getting a little tired of the back-and-forth, let’s just move on to other things.”
On Locke using the same process to reverse the transition that council used to initiate it, during its inaugural meeting in 2018, Elford said, “I’m not sure what the angle is there.
“I guess that would be her thought process is how that would work they’d have to give notice but it’s still up to the provincial government to make that decision, it would be up to Farnworth to say ‘Yeah, we’re going to flip it around now after all this pain we’ve endured over the last two or three years.’
“We served notice on day one that we were discontinuing the contract, everybody supported it. You know, we keep saying, unanimous, like, your hand goes up. It’s black or white, you support it or you don’t.”
Elford is looking forward to the date the Surrey Police Service takes over.
“I believe it’s going to be in 2023,” he said. “If we had our way it would be a lot sooner.”
For his part, Begg suspects Locke’s plan is not feasible.
“It is a contractual agreement, right, so I don’t know if you can rescind your application to withdraw from the RCMP Services, I think that ship has sailed,” he told the Now-Leader.
“I would say the biggest issue there would be the transition costs that have already been expended. What do you do with that, right? Obviously it’s a hypothetical situation. It’s a promise that she makes sort-of-thing but I’m not sure from a legal or contractual point of view whether that’s even possible.”
Melissa Granum is executive director of the Surrey Police Board. She says “anything’s possible, but the question is, is it realistic? And my answer to that would be no.”
By the end of 2022, there will be upwards of 300 unionized Surrey Police Service officers working in Surrey, Granum noted, making Surrey the second largest policing agency in the province.
“So it would be an oversimplification to suggest that they can be absorbed into the RCMP. You’re talking about two different unions with two very different collective agreements, one focuses on the needs of staff across Canada, while the other, the SPU agreement, once it’s ratified, address the needs specific to police personnel here in Surrey.”
Locke noted there is precedent in council’s rejection of a major project championed by the council prior. Shortly after being sworn into office, the current council, in November 2018, reversed the previous Surrey First-dominated council’s plan to set up light rail transit, in favour of expanding SkyTrain along Fraser Highway into Langley.
But Granum says this is a case of apples versus oranges.
“LRT was a capital project – it can’t be compared to a project that involves people, which is the SPS,” Granum points out. “You have police officers that have made the statement that they want to work in Surrey for the duration of their careers by signing up and joining SPS.
“You learn that it’s not just the police officer making their commitment to this city, it’s their entire family. So the council would really have to face this group of police officers and say, ‘no thanks, we don’t want you here,’ and that’s very different than reversing a capital project like LRT,” Granum added.
Melissa Granum. (Submitted photo)
“This is a human capital project, and we have to be very mindful and respectful of the fact we have people who have come to Surrey, we have police officers, who are SPS officers, who are today policing the front lines in Surrey, they’re responding to calls for service and they’re deserving of some thanks and respect for what they’re doing.
“This isn’t like the LRT.”
But can’t the same be said of Surrey Mounties impacted by this transition?
“The difference with the Mounties is that they would be re-posted within their organization whereas with the SPS you’d be saying, ‘no thanks, we don’t want you,’” Granum, “and losing a job, essentially.”
Granum also noted that to reverse the policing transition is that council would require provincial approval.
“In none of my dealings have I ever heard anything from provincial staff but how to achieve success in this project.”
Ultimately public safety is the first priority, she adds.
“The city does have the right to chose its policing model, they exercised that right at the council meeting where they passed the motion to terminate the RCMP contract and to build a Surrey Police. The issue, though, is that I believe it would be unreasonable for local government to switch policing models back and forth depending on how the council of the day feels,” Granum said.
“I can’t speak for the province but I would find it unusual for the province to be OK with this being a campaign issue every four years… Policing’s too expensive and too important to allow that to happen.
“Public safety is the number-one priority for every decision that’s made.”
Coun. Jack Hundial is with Surrey Connect and is running by Locke’s side in the next civic election.
He said Granum needs to look at the history of Surrey.
“Surrey has switched police forces in the past, largely based on the public’s desire to have a not only cost-effective but an effective policing model,” Hundial said.
“As someone who’s worked in Surrey on the front lines from a constable right up to a staff sergeant, I can tell you Surrey is unique and the needs of Surrey are ever-changing when it comes to public safety,” the retired Surrey RCMP officer added. “The RCMP currently is and will continue to be the police force of jurisdiction into the election. So the transition hasn’t even happened. It started, but has not completed.
“Ultimately it’s the taxpayer which decides this, and there has been overwhelming resistance to this transition from the onset.”