COLUMN: Safety needs more than talk

Raymond Caissie arrest highlights issues with justice system

The arrest of Raymond Caissie for the murder of 17-year-old Serena Vermeersch last week has served to throw a hand grenade into the upcoming Surrey election campaign, which was already dominated by concerns about crime, policing and public safety.

Caissie is a high-profile sex offender who was released from jail in 2013 after serving his full 22-year sentence for the horrific sexual assault of an Abbotsford museum worker. When he was released, the B.C. Corrections Branch and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts issued statements about him being a high risk to re-offend, and warned the public about him.

However, Caissie went on to break his probation, was arrested and jailed in November, and was sentenced to three more months in jail in January. He was once again out in March, and placed on parole.

He was living in the Whalley area until quite recently, and many people there recall seeing him.

As many politicians are now saying, after the fact, this man should not have been released from jail. However, there is no way he could have been held there, given the laws that are currently in place. He was not ruled a dangerous offender and did not have an indeterminate sentence. Those are the only offenders who can be held in jail indefinitely.

We must take anything any politician says about this case with a huge grain of salt. They love to trot out platitudes when the occasion warrants, but do little to change the judicial, parole, monitoring and probation systems. Their hands are often tied by court rulings, even when governments act on legitimate public safety concerns, as the current Conservative federal government has done by passing a number of “get tough on crime” laws. The laws passed are often overthrown or modified by judges, after a Charter of Rights challenge.

Local governments can do little about sentencing, probation or parole, but they do have a role to play in policing. Surrey RCMP is largely funded by municipal taxes, and the size of the detachment is largely set by decisions made by Surrey  council.

While the RCMP continue to manage the detachment and it is part of the larger federal police force, Surrey RCMP has taken a lot of direction from council over the years, and there has been a good working relationship between the detachment and council.

One question that remains unanswered is how often Caissie was monitored by local police. It is already well-known that there are about 36 officers on the road in Surrey at any one time. Is that sufficient for anything other than a very occasional monitoring? It seems unlikely.

Caissie had apparently moved from Surrey to Vancouver recently, and it is unknown if Vancouver Police Department or another police agency were monitoring him.

Surrey has not, as of yet, reached the level of murders that it did last year. However, this case is very similar to the murder of Julie Paskall last December.

It has galvanized the community, many of whom are already fearful about their safety. It has focused on the actions of Surrey RCMP. It has reinforced the view that there are too few police officers on the street and that criminals have a free reign.

Former mayor Doug McCallum and Coun. Barinder Rasode have both focused on policing levels in their mayoral campaigns. Coun. Linda Hepner, of the ruling Surrey First party, has been caught more flat-footed on the issue, and it is tough as the representative of a ruling party to try and defend what people see as indefensible.

Newton residents in particular feel betrayed. They were promised increased police presence after Paskall’s murder outside Newton Arena. For a time, policing was beefed up, but residents report that policing is back to where it was a year ago.

This issue will be the dominant one in the municipal election and it will likely lead to increased voter turnout, given the race for mayor and the very genuine concerns of Surrey residents. It will also be the last time in four years that residents can hold local politicians accountable.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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