Surrey mayor talks about crime, murders, more police officers

SURREY — Mayor Linda Hepner held an impromptu press conference Monday to update the public about crime in the city and to offer her condolences to families who lost their loved ones to murder in 2014.

In between fits of coughing and despite being under the weather from a seasonal cold, the mayor spoke about the anniversary of the murder of "hockey mom" Julie Paskall outside of a Newton arena last Dec. 29.

She called the unprovoked and random attack "tragic," and had similar sentiments for the three young people murdered in Surrey this December – Teagan Batstone, 8, Dario Bartoli, 15, and Jaylen Sandhu, 17.

"I was heartbroken for the families and it’s tragic whenever a young person loses their life," she said, adding she has enormous sympathy for parents who have lost a child.

"I’m a mom and I’m a grandmother and I can tell you right now that is not a cross… that is such a heavy burden I cannot imagine how you deal with it. I really cannot."

Hepner said she has reached out personally to some of the families impacted by recent murders, but said those actions were conducted as part of her private life and refused to go into detail.

"There are some things I do that are private and I don’t make them public and I don’t intend on making them public," she said.

The mayor has taken some heat on social media in December for a perceived lack of empathy by not expressing her feelings about the murders. But Hepner said that the people criticizing her on social media are doing so because of political reasons.

"They’re still trying to have an election."

Hepner provided an update on the 100 police officers she promised over the first 24 months of being elected to office. Of the 30 officers already approved in a $21-million plan to hire 52 new members from the RCMP, she said 15 have arrived in the city, with the rest due by the end of March.

The plan is to have 80 additional boots on the ground for neighbourhood policing in the next two years, though that quota will largely depend on availability from the RCMP.

Hepner also talked about the city’s problem with recovery and halfway houses, noting 114 have been shut down in 2014 alone.

"The problem with that is when they shut them down in one place they spring up somewhere else, so it’s a continuum of trying to know where they are," she said, adding 24 are currently before the courts.

The mayor said in the new year council will look into what measures local government can take to assess what recovery homes are doing a good job and which ones are in need of being shut down.

"Because some of the unlicensed ones that are run by the theology groups, they actually are doing a good job."

Following up on a campaign promise, Hepner touched on the need to provide more services and programs in the city for mental health and addictions, noting a significant portion of time is taken up by police officers dealing with people who have mental health issues.

"We saw recent evidence of that with the transit police shooting yesterday," she said, referring to the shooting death of a man at a Surrey Safeway on Sunday.

Hepner said she can be a strong advocate for more mental health programs and funding but ultimately it will require financial assistance from higher levels of government. As noted during the election, she said Surrey would be willing to offer lands around Surrey Memorial Hospital or waive development cost charges to build mental health facilities in the city.

"Whatever we can do at the local level I’m prepared to look at but we do need a significant partner at the provincial level."

Hepner also responded to a question about whether recent murders of young people in Surrey indicated a need for more programs and services for youth.

She said the city is already "very aggressive" in youth programs and sports and added it’s "premature" in the investigations of recent murders to speculate what impact local government initiatives may or may not have had on the incidents.

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