Would Surrey be better off having its own police force than sticking with the RCMP?
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Wally Oppal replied to that question. “I don’t know.”
The former B.C. Supreme Court judge and attorney general was appointed by the provincial government to oversee Surrey’s plan to transition to its own police force.
He’s done his review of it, and has sent it on for further consideration. The ultimate decision whether Surrey’s plan will be realized still has to be made by the solicitor general, he noted.
“The Act is quite clear that they have to entertain any reasonable application from the city, and that’s under the Police Act, so they have to do that.”
Oppal delivered a progress update on Surrey’s plan to replace the RCMP with a city-made police force, as the keynote speaker at a Surrey Board of Trade “Hot Topic Dialogue” breakfast event Wednesday, at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel at 15269 104th Ave.
“I don’t speak on behalf of the province,” he said.
At Surrey council’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 5th, 2018 it served notice to the provincial and federal governments it is ending its contract with the RCMP – which has policed these parts since May 1, 1951 – to set up its own force.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth on Aug. 22, 2019 gave the city the go-ahead to pursue the plan. Last November Mayor Doug McCallum said Surrey Police officers could be patrolling alongside the Surrey RCMP by next summer, despite there being no agreement in place to see this happen.
“I think that might be ambitious,” Oppal said Wednesday. “The province has to take the legislative lead here, and the province has other things on their mandate as well, so anything could happen.”
Asked when his report will be released to the public, Oppal said that’s entirely up to the director of policing and the solicitor general.
“I expect that they’ll mull it over – it’s a 450-page report, so they’re going to have to mull over what’s workable, what isn’t, so they’ll work from there.”
Meantime, Oppal told his breakfast audience that “policing is too important to be left to the police” and thanked Surrey residents for their keen interest in this issue. “You have taken ownership of the matter,” he said.
Members of the audience lined up to hit Oppal with a barrage of complaints aimed at Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, charging that the mayor doesn’t listen to them and there’s no transparency in the process.
Oppal told them it’s not his role to give political advice and suggested they keep the “decision makers” apprised of their concerns.
“Keep after them, is all I can say.”
As for the grief he took from audience members on the mayor’s behalf, Oppal later told the Now-Leader that he “avoided” responding to political questions that were directed his way.
“I have no role in any of that, and I have a limited role, and I made that quite clear,” he said. “I’m here just to talk about policing and what the next step, if any, might be taken.”
— Tom Zytaruk (@tomzytaruk) February 26, 2020
— Tom Zytaruk (@tomzytaruk) February 26, 2020
McCallum did not attend the event, nor did Councillors Doug Elford, Laurie Guerra, Allison Patton or Mandeep Nagra.
Councillors Jack Hundial, Linda Annis, Steven Pettigrew and Brenda Locke did attend.
Regardless of how everything plays out in the end, Oppal said, Surreyites “should be proud” for getting involved in this as that’s what democracy is about.
If the public consultation process has been flawed, he said, “I can’t do anything about that.”
“I don’t know what the costs will be,” Oppal said of a Surrey Police force which, if formed, will have an “impact” on the “overall policing strategy the province has.”
He said straight off he wants to “put to rest” people’s request for him to call a referendum on the matter.
“I can’t hold a referendum – that’s not up to me.”
He also said it’s “far fetched” to expect the provincial government to do so because that’s the city’s jurisdiction.
Oppal said while Surrey owes a “debt of gratitude” to the RCMP, it’s also important to recognize that “changes take place.”
Overall, he said, “I think the Mounties have done a pretty good job.”
Oppal said city police forces are generally more expensive than the RCMP but he expects, with current bargaining, that the Mounties “will be getting huge raises.”
In a media scrum following the question-and-answer period, Oppal laid out some advantages and disadvantages of both the RCMP and a city police force.
The “major advantage” of having a city force, he said, is local accountability as opposed to a police force governed from Ottawa.
“The members of the police board will be local citizens, and they’ll no doubt deal with local priorities and local priorities. I think it’s an advantage,” Oppal said. “The other thing is, Surrey is the largest city in Canada without its own police force.”
The disadvantages of having a city force instead of the RCMP, he said, is “you don’t have that national presence that the RCMP can bring, and the RCMP have expertise in conducting complex investigations. The start up may be challenging.”
Asked what he thought of the mayor not attending, Oppal replied, “Well, I’m sure the mayor has other things to do.”