COLUMN: Policing consultations should have happened months ago

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum is under plenty of pressure from residents, and even from several of his Safe Surrey Coalition councillors, over the plan to change the policing model in Surrey.

Many residents are upset about the secrecy surrounding a report prepared by the city, and recently forwarded to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth. The report was necessary – Surrey cannot change from the RCMP to a city police force without provincial approval – but the excessive secrecy surrounding its contents (councillors didn’t even see it until the day it went to Farnworth) has angered many.

Many people feel there has been no public input. Many are concerned that taxes will rise dramatically. Coun. Linda Annis, the lone Surrey First councillor, confirmed their worst fears when she called the contents of the report “shocking.” Annis can’t share details because the report was discussed in a closed meeting, but it appears the report calls for a major increase in the number of police officers in Surrey, with some speculating the accompanying boost to the police portion of property taxes could be as high as 50 per cent.

To add insult to injury, the city began a series of “public engagements” about the shift from the RCMP to Surrey Police on May 23 – but what is there to consult about? McCallum says the transition is going ahead. The report has been forwarded to Victoria. No information about staffing and costs has been made available. The consultations should have happened months ago, before the report was prepared, and options (including staffing and costs) should have been clearly laid out.

The provincial government is very aware of the anger in Surrey. Farnworth, after receiving the report, said that its contents need to be made public soon, and Premier John Horgan, who was in Surrey for an announcement on May 23, echoed the need for much more information to be shared with residents.

It will be interesting to see if the province even accepts the report, as written. Obviously, the province’s decision will be based on the quality of the report’s contents, but there will be political calculations as well. The provincial government has no political reason to give Surrey council cover, and it is anxious to retain all the Surrey seats won by the NDP in 2017, and perhaps even add one or two. If the government sees the concerns raised as something it can take advantage of politically, it will.

One further point. One reason the report likely calls for a massive increase in police numbers is because successive councils have nickeled and dimed Surrey RCMP for years. Longtime Surrey residents will remember a series of “tax freezes” McCallum introduced during his first stint as mayor, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These freezes were largely fuelled by councils agreeing to only minimal expansion of the police force, even as Surrey continued to grow rapidly.

Surrey First councils under mayors Dianne Watts and Linda Hepner did add significant numbers to the RCMP ranks.

There is significant interest in moving to a city police force, and there are advantages. The RCMP model also has some advantages, notably the fact that the city only pays 90 per cent of the cost of each officer. But no police force can combat Surrey’s many serious crime challenges if it is understaffed.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca

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