Linda Hepner knows what it’s like to be in the hot seat, to be a lightning rod for public angst over safety in the city of Surrey. With every drive-by shooting that happened during her tenure as Surrey’s mayor – from 2014 to 2018 – greater pressure came to bear on her for a swift fix to end gang violence on our streets.
There were 38 shootings in Surrey in 2018, and 59 in 2017. In 2016 there were 61 and in 2015 there were 88. According to the Surrey RCMP there have been 18 reports of shots fired in Surrey so far this year.
Public safety became a major issue leading up to last year’s civic election campaign, in which Hepner did not seek re-election but retired from civic politics after 33 years in public service to this city, in the political arena and also as a city hall staffer. Former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, of course, succeeded her on Oct. 20, 2018. A major part of his Safe Surrey Coalition’s campaign platform was to swap out the Surrey RCMP – which has policed Surrey since 1951 – for a made-in-Surrey force, and after sending his administration’s plan to make good on that transition to the provincial government for approval, that 189-page report was released to the public earlier this week.
Politics being what it is, in office and out, one can expect a former politician to slam a rival’s plan. Hepner is critical of what she’s read in the report, but one gets the sense she is far from gloating about it as she discharges her mind concerning the contents of the Surrey Policing Transition Plan.
“I’m sorry, I have to fail it,” she told the Now-Leader, asked to assign a letter grade. “Because I don’t have any answers. If I had answers, I could go somewhere else, but in the absence of any real answers in there to those questions I believe people of Surrey want to know, I have to give it a failing grade and I don’t care how many thousands of reports the mayor says he’s read.
“In this case I give it a failing grade,” Hepner reiterated, “because I don’t think it answered a very important question: Is this going to make the community any safer, or is he trying to gloss over perception of where we are in reality in the first place? It’s stunning to me. I think that even within his own ranks he’s finding that this is not something people wanted in the absence of communication and consultation.”
Hepner said she sees a “patchwork” of contracts and continuation of some significant programs that are underway, but doesn‘t see anything that has identified a single solitary thing that’s going to make any difference “other than a new paint job on a vehicle, a new patch on your arm and an increased cost. I remain mystified as to what is going to be achieved other than a police board, and I would approach that entirely differently.”
McCallum, of course, sees it differently.
“I have seen thousands of reports over the years in my political career – this is one of the best,” McCallum said. “It’s truly a blueprint.”
He said he recently met with the “big city mayors’ caucus” in Quebec City and “every one of those cities, all 12 of them, had at one time had the RCMP and they all changed to their city police departments, and not one of them would ever go back to the RCMP – they’re all happy with their own city police.”
McCallum said a “critical part” of the Surrey Policing Transition Plan report is that “all the police departments, or city police departments, we believe in Canada, of major cities, want the accountability and the direction of the police board, done by the residents in their cities, not Ottawa and the RCMP. So that accountability is extremely important to our residents.”
Part of the aim is to cut back on administration costs, he said, taking aim at the RCMP’s provincial headquarters – ‘E’ division – in Green Timbers.
“This report points out very clearly that we pay $20 million a year to ‘E’ Division. Our taxpayers are paying for the administration at ‘E’ division, which doesn’t effect us really in any way, in Surrey.
“On top of that, we have $25 million that we pay our own staff to administer the RCMP,” McCallum said. “That’s a total of $45 million in administration costs out of a total budget of $160 million. And so there is lots of duplication in that administration cost that we can cut back. This report says we can have a far better, a more streamlined, unified police force by looking at those administration costs.”
Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs, acting commanding officer of the RCMP’s “E” division, iterated in a statement to the media this week an extended no comment on Surrey’s plan.
“As the RCMP is a service provider only, we won’t express our opinion or analysis of the City of Surrey’s report,” Stubbs said, “nor is it appropriate for us to publicly discuss the feasibility of the proposed plan.”
Hepner, meantime, said it’s not her aim to “belittle” the report, “because I have great respect for Dr. Terry Waterhouse (who is overseeing the transition) and I’m assuming his hand is on this report, but I’m sure, without question, because I worked under McCallum for over a decade, I know what the direction would have been and how this report would have been demanded to be written, and that’s where I think the Province needs to take a serious look.”
Hepner did take aim, however, at the contribution of Dr. Curt Griffiths, professor and coordinator of the police studies program at SFU Surrey’s school of criminology.
“Prior to the election he wrote an article about Surrey being short at least 300 officers, and now he’s put his name to a report that says we’re quite prepared to have even a number that is, if you use the RCMP’s complement, less than what we have now and if you use the city’s complement is barely a dozen more which could have been achieved this year through the finance committee’s recommendation that failed.”
The professor was quoted in the media in June 2018 saying Surrey needs 400 more officers “today.” Griffiths told the Now-Leader that Surrey is “massively” under-policed “as are most RCMP detachments.”
“Obviously no matter what model you have you’re not going to get the Surrey police service, whether it’s a Mountie or municipal, up to where it needs to be overnight,” he explained. “It’s not like in 2021, under the new plan, you’re going to bring in 400 additional police officers. My point was that, getting people to realize the dynamic nature of Surrey – the fact that it’s one of the fastest growing, most diverse communities in the country, and largest municipalities, that you have to adequately meet the policing needs of the community. Again, it’s not going to occur overnight no matter what model you have.”
The report says the Surrey RCMP currently has an “authorized strength” of 843 Mounties but has 51 vacancies, resulting in 792 officers. It also has 302 city employees. The plan for the city force calls for 805 sworn police officers, 20 Community Safety Personnel and 325 civilian positions, for a staff of 1,150. A city brochure indicates a five per cent increase in staff, 16 per cent more “frontline” officers and 29 per cent more school liaison and youth officers, for a total operating cost of $192.5 million in operating costs in 2021 compared to $173.6 million in 2021 under the RCMP contract.
Hepner said what’s “astonishing” to her is nobody has really answered the question yet “on what is it we are trying to solve.
“First of all, if you look at the parts of the report that I thought were well documented, every single thing that the RCMP would currently do within our community is being retained,” Hepner said. “Nothing’s shifted. The only thing I can see in this report, time and time again, is a police board. You know what, if that was really what you wanted, you could ask the Province to set up a police advisory committee and to do whatever, over the RCMP. I never had Ottawa, one minute of my tenure as mayor, suggest that there was anything that my chief couldn’t do for us. In fact, I hired him. So it’s not as if we didn’t have leverage over who could represent you as chief, we certainly did, I did it, so I’m not sure what he (McCallum) is trying to solve.”
Hepner said she thinks the report “generally is rife with generalizations.”
“There’s the sweet irony that they’re suggesting they want to have people who live in Surrey, police in Surrey and make Surrey their home and because the RCMP come from everywhere and yet they’re going right across the country to recruit.”
Moreover, the former Surrey mayor said a human resources strategy is “completely lacking” in how the city intends to fill some of the more significant positions
“You can’t just say we need, I don’t know, sex crime experts, anybody want to hold up their hand? It takes a whole lot of skill and training – I just find the whole thing is lacking in real information of how you’re going to achieve it. It’s filled with areas that say we’re going to contract this out, we’re going to utilize other agencies or the Vancouver Police, and it does not define what the costs will ultimately be. So not only is it rife with generalizations, but it is completely lacking in the big numbers.”
What does Hepner suspect the provincial government’s response will be to the transition plan?
“I would expect the Province will take a serious look at what the communication has been with the residents of this city other than it was an election issue. I would expect they will want to know significantly more about an HR strategy; I will expect they will want to know significantly more where there are areas of generalization, to have a more in-depth understanding, and I would expect that they will want to know what it is, outside of, ‘I’d like to have an independent police board.’ I think they’re going to want know what is the real problem that they’re trying to solve. I expect they’re going to want all the answers to all of those questions.”
Meantime, federal Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale has assured McCallum that Public Safety Canada and the RCMP “will cooperate” with Surrey and the provincial government to “effect an orderly transition that keeps residents safe.”
Goodale, in a letter sent May 2, says the federal government commits to cost-sharing “appropriate expenses related to the transition at the applicable cost-share ratio” as set out in B.C.’s Municipal Police Service Agreement.
“As long as the RCMP remains Surrey’s municipal police service,” Goodale wrote, “I can assure you that maintaining public safety will remain its top priority.”