The B.C. government's announcement that the City of Surrey will form a municipal police board won praise from the city's mayor but has also spurred a political backlash from opponents of Surrey's move to transition away from policing by the RCMP.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum described the announcement Thursday as “Day 1 of the Surrey police force.”
McCallum said recruitment of officers has already begun and the city has already chosen Bob Rolls, retired deputy police chief for the City of Vancouver, as its city-appointed board member — one of seven founding board members, which also includes the city’s mayor and five appointees of the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
Speaking to media at Surrey city hall, McCallum thanked the current minister Mike Farnworth as well as Premier John Horgan, whose government is already facing political blowback for the decision to approve the police force.
While the decision has divided local residents, McCallum continued to reiterate the mandate he was given as the elected mayor and as a candidate who clearly campaigned for the Surrey Police Department.
“That’s why politicians run. They put their programs out, they get elected, they stay with it, they vote on it and they achieve it. That’s what our residents want,” said McCallum.
Surrey is the biggest city in Canada with a local RCMP detachment, noted McCallum, who contends a municipal force will provide for greater local decision making and control and a force that is more rooted in the community (as opposed to the RCMP, a federal entity that sees frequent transfers of officers and trains recruits in Regina).
Farnworth said Thursday that he is aware of the controversial decision, which only amplified following an austerity budget passed last December by McCallum’s slate to keep tax increases low while still paying the estimated cost of $45 million for the transition.
“There are strong views on both sides of this issue. I’m under no illusions,” said Farnworth, who reiterated his role is to simply oversee the transition process to maintain public safety.
“The City of Surrey is democratically elected and has taken that decision,” said Farnworth, via teleconference, referring to a unanimous council vote in November 2018 to turf the RCMP.
“Policing is a local government responsibility. They are the ones to decide.… My job is to ensure the transition is done properly.”
The NDP controls six of nine provincial seats in Surrey, flipping three of them from BC Liberal control in the 2017 election.
Any unforeseen transition costs will be borne by Surrey, said Farnworth.
McCallum said the city force would maintain a contract with some of the RCMP’s regional units, such as the Integrated Homicide Team. It is understood the city force can, in the future, establish its own homicide investigation squad, as like Vancouver.
Following McCallum’s 25-minute speech and question and answer event with media Thursday morning, Coun. Linda Annis — among four councillors now opposed to the transition after once voting for it — said it was a “disappointing” day for Surrey.
“The residents have been talking loud and clear that they do not want to transition away from the RCMP.”
Annis said about $129 million is being spent on the transition (estimates including transition costs plus increased operating costs over five years).
“This is money that could be going into rec centres, more police officers, more fire fighters. It’s not good utilization of taxpayers money,” Annis said.
Coun. Stephen Pettigrew, an independent council member following a split from McCallum’s slate, took aim at Farnworth for approving the transition.
“I’m of the opinion that the NDP, it’s time for them to go. It’s time for them to leave the city of Surrey; they do not represent the wishes of the people and they’ve lost their chance to remain here.
“They’re going to pay the price for this,” said Pettigrew.
Paul Daynes, a co-organizer of a “Keep the RCMP in Surrey” petition, spoke outside the locked media room.
“Our message for Minister Farnworth is, this is not without consequence to him and his government. We will be actively campaigning in the run up to this election and we will not support any MLA that does not support one of two things: giving people in Surrey a say or retaining the RCMP in Surrey,” said Daynes in reference to a referendum the group had been calling for.
“We’ll campaign against the NDP in the next provincial election,” said Daynes.
His group purports to have a petition signed by 40,000 people. The petition was sent to Premier John Horgan, who may choose to read it to the Legislature, or not.
The petition could be signed by any B.C. resident as long as it was signed in Surrey, according to the group’s petition rules. It does not appear to be a formal petition to the B.C. Legislature. Glacier Media has attempted to understand the vetting process of the petition and what sort of official standing it has, however the government’s communications staff have yet to respond.
Daynes said the costs of transition have come at a toll to the city.
“They’ve cut back on social programs and infrastructure to pay for this nonsense,” he said of McCallum’s plan.
He said McCallum doesn’t have a mandate to axe the RCMP because he only got 41 % of the popular vote.
He said McCallum displays “dictatorial mini Trump-like behaviour.”
The transition process has been laid out by a report to Farnworth from the Provincial Municipal Policing Transition Study Committee, chaired by former Attorney General Hon. Wally Oppal.
Oppal said the transition timeline of getting Surrey’s department operable by April 2021 is “ambitious.”
Farnworth said Oppal’s report may be made public next week.
The provincial government outlined the next steps to appoint five board members, who, along with Rolls and McCallum, will hire a police chief.
First, the ministry will initiate the process by posting a notice of position online to recruit prospective candidates. Ministry staff will interview candidates and provide a list of recommendations to the director, who will then conduct secondary suitability interviews.
It is less clear how Surrey determined its board member Rolls. Annis said the decision was made in a closed council meeting where a “majority” approved of Rolls upon a recommendation. She said she couldn’t say anything more beyond that.
Meanwhile, Surrey RCMP Assistant Commissioner (police chief) Brian Edwards released an email statement Thursday indicating the detachment is in the dark on the process.
“I have not seen the report done by the Provincial Municipal Policing Transition Study Committee, so I cannot comment on the process ahead, timeline, or policing structure during a transition," Edwards said. "I hope to be brought into those conversations in the weeks and months ahead so I can ensure the safety of Surrey residents and the wellbeing of members and employees throughout this process."
Edwards expressed “respect” for municipalities to choose their own form of policing.
After her comments to media, Annis, the only elected member of council not in McCallum’s slate, released an email statement: “A Surrey police department cannot be created behind closed doors and we really have to ask ourselves about what extra value we’re going to get from the SPD.”