AUXILIARY CONSTABLES: RCMP’s volunteer cop program in transition over safety concerns.
SECOND IN A SERIES: As news surrounding Surrey’s RCMP dominates headlines, we look at different ways residents are helping make our city safer. Click here to read part one.
SURREY — Never have so many said so little, and almost all off the record.
Surrey’s time-honored Auxiliary Constable program is experiencing turmoil following a national RCMP directive on January 27 prohibiting the volunteer cops from participating in ride-alongs with regular, armed Mounties.
This, and other new restrictions dictated from Ottawa headquarters, has some local long-serving volunteers peeved. But it is difficult to gauge what affect the changes will have on policing in Surrey, if any, because few auxiliaries are willing to publicly air their grievances and regular Mounties are reluctant to discuss the matter.
“I think the reaction overall was disappointment,” said Merv Bayda, a city employee who manages Surrey’s 80-volunteer-strong RCMP Auxiliary Constable Program.
“They’re trained to minimize crime.”
For Bayda (pictured left), auxiliary constables are the “ultimate volunteers.”
They go out into the community, without pay, to risk life and limb for strangers.
“There’s heroism, right there,” Bayda said. “It is heroism.
“They have certainly done things I feel are above and beyond.”
Some volunteers join the program hoping to become a regular paid cop and saw the ride-alongs as good practical training to that end, Bayda noted.
“We have not seen any drop offs yet. That may change.”
Bonnie Mellor, honored in 2011 as Surrey RCMP’s Auxiliary Constable of the Year, recently wrote a scathing letter to the editor charging the “program has been reduced to shreds.
“Why would Surrey prefer to pay thousands of dollars in overtime,” she wrote, “as opposed to having volunteers at events and doing patrols to keep our neighborhood safe?”
Mellor noted in her letter that in 2015 Surrey’s auxiliaries volunteered more than 20,000 hours of their time.
“Imagine if those were paid overtime hours. We have always had the support of the City of Surrey and the mayor’s office and now we are being negatively impacted. What a sad and unfortunate day it is for Surrey.”
Surrey RCMP Chief Supt. Bill Fordy (pictured below) stressed that the auxiliary constables services remain valuable to the city and that the program has not been shut down.
“The Surrey RCMP has always maintained that our auxiliary constables play an important role in out community in crime prevention and community engagement and we fully committed to having this vital role continue in our community,” he told the Now recently. Their primary purpose, he explained, is “to participate in community policing services such as community engagement and crime prevention.”
Surrey RCMP — Canada’s largest detachment — has 80 auxiliary constables, making it the largest contingent of roughly 1,500 auxiliaries across the nation. More than 700 are in B.C.
All provinces have RCMP volunteer constables, with the exception of Quebec, Ontario and Nunavut.
The volunteer officers are equipped with a baton, pepper spray and a flashlight, but no gun.
The new changes are a federal, not a local, directive resulting from the conclusions of a year-long policy review following the fatal Jan. 17, 2015 shooting of RCMP Constable David Wynn at Apex Casino outside Edmonton, Alberta.
Auxiliary Constable David Bond, a volunteer police officer since 2008, was injured in that same incident. He had no gun to defend himself with.
They were shot while investigating a report about a stolen vehicle at the casino. Bond was shot twice in his arm and torso, but survived.
Because the volunteer constables are unarmed and work alongside Mounties, Fordy noted, “the potential for danger exists.
“Incidents where uniformed officers have been randomly targeted, along with the shooting of an auxiliary constable in Alberta last year, demonstrated the need for increased vigilance,” he told the Now. “For this reason the RCMP has discontinued the ride along component nationally for the auxiliary officers — I support this approach.”
Fordy cancelled the ride-alongs weeks before the edict came down from RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, issuing a memo to the auxiliaries on Jan. 5.
“When I was aware of the findings in the murder of David Wynn, as the detachment commander in Surrey I issued a directive to discontinue the ride-alongs because as the detachment commander I’m ultimately responsible for the safety and security of every police officer, municipal employee and auxiliary constable. When I look at how our world has changed over the last number of years, and as you know we’ve had incidents in Surrey where there’s been predatory behaviour where police have been targeted, I believe that I have a responsibility to send everybody home safely. And when we send unarmed auxiliaries to dynamic calls for service as first responders there is a risk there that the general public may or may not appreciate.”
Fordy recalled the on-duty death of Surrey Constable Adrian Oliver, who died in 2012 in a traffic crash. “I never, ever want to deal with that again and I would never want to put an auxiliary constable in a position where they are subject to violence or the worst-case scenario, death, and that’s the position that I took, and I took that in advance of the national bulletin,” he said.
Besides no longer being able to ride with Mounties, the auxiliary constables will no longer receive firearms familiarizing training, and the force is considering changing their uniforms to better distinguish them from regular officers.
Corporal Janelle Shoihet, a spokeswoman for RCMP “E” Division, echoed Fordy that the auxiliary constables will continue to perform crime prevention, community engagement and other duties, “Considerations are being made to uniform changes, as we recognize that they may be identified as a police officer while on duty in uniform, which puts them at risk of harm,” she said. “When auxiliary constables are in uniform they will need to be accompanied by a regular member who is equipped with intervention options.”
As far as outfall from the auxiliaries themselves, Fordy recognizes “there are a few people that are upset and sad, but the vast majority understand the issues and pressures that we all face.”
“Whenever there’s change,” Fordy noted, “some people will react in a different way. Some people may chose to discontinue their volunteering, being auxiliaries, but others will embrace it as an opportunity to find new and innovative ways to make the program better.
“We’re not going to arrest our way and enforce our way out of many of the challenges ,” he said. “We need to engage in prevention and intervention and that’s where the auxiliaries I think can play a role and be a positive part of it. They can still be at special events and major events, there just needs to be direct oversight. I’ve looked at the numbers of auxiliary constables and regular members that attend all those events — we always have more regular members than we have auxiliaries, so I’m not worried about that. We just have to be more strategic in how we deploy them and ensure their safety. At the end of the day, we need to ensure their safety and be responsible for them.”
Increased overtime costs will not be an issue as a result of changes to the auxiliary program, Fordy said. “I’m not concerned about that. We don’t use auxiliaries to save money; we don’t build an operational plan and say ‘OK, we need X auxiliaries and X regular members.’ We build our operational plans with regular members and auxiliaries are an increase or a bonus to our establishment. But everything for us is about safety and it must always be our number one concern. It is for me.”
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said it’s her understanding these changes will not affect the city’s budget in any way. “It will not, so I’m told.
“We will still use them for large events.”
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
The Surrey RCMP takes in new auxiliaries from January to March every year. Some successful applicants use the experience as a stepping stone to getting hired on as a paid police officer with the RCMP or a municipal force, while others serve as career volunteers. You have to be at least 21, a Canadian citizen proficient in English, and pass security tests and meet fitness and other requirements including being able to commit to serving for at least two years after your training. The basic training program includes 260 hours of full-day classes and practical instruction, usually on Saturdays but sometimes during weekday evenings, over six months. The auxiliaries receive instruction in law, police procedures, self-defense, foot drills, first aid, use of force and dealing with the public.
Auxiliary constables help police Surrey by supporting programs like Block Watch, the Junior Police Academy and the Family Identification Program. They also help with traffic control and to provide a visible police presence at large city events such as the Fusion Festival, Canada Day celebrations and Halloween patrols.
Roughly 45 volunteer cops help police the annual Vaisakhi parade in Newton and 10 or 15 walk thew bear during the Cloverdale Rodeo.
The Surrey RCMP’s website outlines the purpose of the auxiliary constable program, which is “to strengthen community and police partnerships by providing volunteers with the opportunity to perform authorized activities in support of strategies to address the causes of, or reduce the fear of, crime and disorder.”
They are each expected to volunteer for at least 160 hours annually.
A BIT OF HISTORY…
The RCMP introduced its auxiliary constable program in 1963 under the Emergency Measures Act. The volunteer constables carried revolvers from then up until 1998, when they were disarmed. Before then, B.C. was the only province to permit auxiliaries to carry firearms. Assistant Commissioner Murray Johnston, the RCMP’s commanding officer in B.C., decided to disarm the volunteers in part to bring the province in line with the rest of Canada and because he didn’t think it was fair to arm volunteers and put them in the position of having to make life-and-death decisions.
The move had it critics, including then-Surrey mayor Doug McCallum who expressed concern auxiliaries would quit as a result.
The force has since 1999 been talking about shifting the focus of their duties from riding along with regular Mounties to focussing on programs centered on community safety and crime prevention.
WHAT DELTA DOES
Delta’s volunteer police officers are called reserves, not auxiliaries.
“Right now we have 20 active reserves and 10 or 12 in training,” noted Sgt. Sarah Swallow, of the Delta Police. “They must commit to 16 hours each month which can include community events, training, mandatory monthly meetings, ride-alongs with patrol members and participation in other community events and programs.”
Delta’s volunteer police officers do not carry guns but are issued pepper spray and a baton. “As part of their training they do some hours at the range for firearms familiarization and general interest.”
The reserves wear a uniform similar to the sworn officers that does not say “police” but their light blue shirts have a crest with “reserve” written on it.
Swallow was a reserve in 2006 and had also been working as a police dispatcher before becoming a full-fledged, sworn officer with the force.
She said half of her reserve classmates were eventually hired on add police officers in Delta or other police forces.
The reserve program provides a “great way” for the volunteers to get to know the police administration and vice versa.
Concerning ride-alongs, she said, “There’s no other way to see what policing is all about than to go on a ride-along.
“You’re on the road, you get to see what it’s like.”
Delta’s reserves also help police parades and assist with traffic control.
Delta Police is not planning to change the structure of its volunteer police program as the RCMP has, as far as she’s aware.
“At this point I don’t know of any plans to revamp it,” Swallow said.