SIMPSON: Surrey’s diversity unit is great but a cop’s smile is free

If cops are going to talk about engaging the public in a meaningful way, why don't they simply start with the basics?

Beau Simpson is editor of the Now. He can be reached at beau.simpson@thenownewspaper.com.

‘Negative’ isn’t quite the word I would use to describe one of the first interactions my children had with a Surrey RCMP officer.

More like surreal.

It was four years ago. We were in the car, leaving the fairgrounds after celebrating Canada Day in Cloverdale. An RCMP officer was doing his best to direct the mass exodus of vehicles as families left the popular party.

It was clear he was struggling to manage the situation, so I was extra cautious. I inched towards the intersection, constantly watching the officer, waiting for him to give me the go-ahead to proceed.

Suddenly, he stormed up to our car and stuck his sweaty, scowling face through the driver’s side window.

“Go!!!!!!!” he screamed, spit flying from his mouth. “Or I will pull you off the road and make you all walk home!”

We were all bewildered and mortified, especially the kids, who were six and seven at the time.

It was truly an ugly way to end such a perfect family day but what would motivate me to write about it now, four years later?

Simple. Inspector Ghalib Bhayani and the new Surrey RCMP Diversity Community Engagement Unit.

You see, I have been champing at the bit to write about this unit when I first heard Bhayani mention it on March 1 at a Surrey Board of Trade breakfast that focused on crime in Cloverdale.

I thought it sounded fantastic – a new unit made up of two City of Surrey employees and three RCMP officers designed to reach out to all the different cultural groups in our city, engaging them in a proactive, positive way.

Through this unit, police want these groups, especially the newcomers to Canada, to know the RCMP is their friend.

What an amazing idea – and it is the first such unit in Canada.

I wanted to hear more about it but Surrey RCMP wasn’t quite ready to lift the veil in any sort of official way.

So I went to Surrey City Hall. There, Bhayani, along with Sgt. Paul Hayes, was scheduled to make a presentation to the city’s Diversity Advisory Committee on Tuesday morning. Their passion for the project was palpable.

“I see this unit as nothing but opportunity,” Sgt. Hayes told the committee on Tuesday.

I agree. And I am looking foward to writing about this new unit as it continues to engage our city’s different groups – which, by the way, are not limited to Surrey’s ethnic groups but also include groups like the LGBTQ community.

This is the proactive policing approach Surrey needs.

But here’s the problem. (Maybe I should rephrase that, as Inspector Bhayani likes to refer to ‘problems’ as simply ‘gaps’ that need to be filled.)

Here’s the gap.

The RCMP strategy of “let’s get the community to know we are their friends” does not seem to permeate down to the average, every day officer on patrol – at least that’s been my experience and what I also hear from many readers, friends and family members.

At business luncheons and committee presentations, the RCMP are charming, friendly officers who disarm questioners with jokes and funny anecdotes.

In the real world, RCMP officers seem to take a grittier, gruffer approach to handling the public.

If you visit some of Seattle’s rougher downtown areas, you would see police officers talking to citizens, coffees in hand as they ask how people are doing, even playing games of ping pong and chess with passersby.

It would be nice to see that here.  Whenever I see officers in coffee shops, I rarely see them interact with the public – and they are usually scowling.

These men and women have a hard job, I get that. And if I had it in me to do what they do, I would probably be scowling most of the time too. And of course, there are many amazing officers on our streets – ones we have written about in these very pages.

But if we’re going to talk about engaging the public in a meaningful way, why not start with the basics?

Simple things can go a long way, like treating a volunteer youth baseball coach with courtesy when he or she goes to an RCMP office to complete the required criminal record check.

Or an officer waving and smiling at families as his patrol car drives through their neighbourhood.

Those things can be just as effective – and they’re free.

And so is showing patience to a family of four on Canada Day.

Beau Simpson is editor of the Now. He can be reached at beau.simpson@thenownewspaper.com.

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