COLUMN: Politics and policing are not a good mix

The transition to a new Surrey Police force is now firmly in the hands of Wally Oppal, the former judge and attorney-general appointed by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth to oversee the process. That means that any comments by Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum about the new police force should be ignored. It’s completely out of his hands.

McCallum had said in a recent interview “There’s going to be a period of time where we’re going to have both RCMP officers out there, and our own city police officers.”

The RCMP’s E division, which is based in Surrey and oversees all RCMP operations in B.C., said there is no agreement to do so. When Oppal was asked about whether there is a shadowing plan in place, he replied, “No, there isn’t.”

Asked if it could be done by mid-2020, he chuckled.

SFU criminologist Rob Gordon, who is following the whole transition processes closely, said of the policing transition, “I don’t think it is really down to McCallum now.”

He added that Oppal is in charge and is doing a good job of looking after all the many details.

This is good news for a lot of reasons.

While McCallum campaigned on replacing the RCMP with a city police force, and council voted unanimously at its inaugural meeting a year ago to begin that process, policing cannot be political.

Policing is paid for with tax dollars, and in Surrey it consumes the largest share of the city budget.

However, it is performed by police officers who are non-political, and far removed from any political masters. It must be that way. In jurisdictions where that is not the case, policing often involves corruption, bribery and many miscarriages of justice. Canadians do not want policing to even come close to that type of misconduct.

Because McCallum continually politicized the issue of policing, he faced resistance from the head of the Surrey RCMP detachment, from a large number of citizens and from members of council, including Coun. Jack Hundial, a former Surrey RCMP officer who was part of McCallum’s slate. While the three Safe Surrey Coalition members of council who have left the mayor’s slate behind departed for a variety of reasons, policing was one of the main ones.

Farnworth was well aware of all of these concerns when the request to move to a Surrey Police force landed on his desk in Victoria. That’s why he took his time in responding, and appointed Oppal to oversee the transition. Oppal has a wide variety of experience in legal, justice, policing and political matters, and there is probably no one in B.C. more qualified to take on this task.

He has identified training, recruitment, information technology, transition of active files and public confidence in the new force as being critical issues that the transition team must work on. The team met for the third time on Thursday (Nov. 7) and will continue to meet regularly. While Surrey is represented at those meetings, the Surrey representatives are staff members, not politicians.

There continues to be anxiety about how much the new police force will cost, but that is not directly up to Oppal’s team. Ultimately, council will decide on the cost when it agrees to the annual Surrey budget.

One thing that Oppal should consider, given the way this issue has unfolded, is that the new Surrey Police board should not be chaired by the mayor, as has traditionally been the case in B.C. The chair should be someone completely removed from politics. That is necessary in order to build public confidence in the new force.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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