COLUMN: Secrecy has alienated residents from policing report

Referendum would go a long way in determining level of public support, writes Frank Bucholtz

Most of the Surrey report calling for transition to a city police force has now been released.

Reaction has been quite mixed, with politicians such as former mayor Linda Hepner highly critical, and some community leaders cautious. Safe Surrey Coalition Coun. Jack Hundial, a former Surrey RCMP staff sergeant, is critical of it on a number of fronts.

Petitions to keep the RCMP in Surrey are circulating and there is unquestionably a significant number of Surrey citizens who prefer the status quo.

There are several surprising conclusions in the report. The most significant is that the new police force would be slightly smaller than the current Surrey RCMP detachment; 805 members compared to the current 843 members.

Despite that, policing costs would jump by 10.9 per cent. Not surprisingly, this is very close to the figure that Mayor Doug McCallum campaigned on. It is obvious the report was written with that campaign promise in mind.

Despite that, the report is not overtly political. It lays out an argument for more local control of policing and calls for a model with more officers on patrol and fewer in management. Existing crime-prevention programs would be retained and in some cases strengthened.

One of Hepner’s criticisms is that those objectives could easily be achieved with the RCMP. She said the city could simply ask for a police board with more oversight than council has at present, and suggests such a request would be granted.

The report is now in the hands of Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who will decide if Surrey’s request for a city police force can proceed or not. The decision will be guided by advice from within his department, and in the meantime, Farnworth is on the receiving end of a lot of emails, letters and petitions from Surrey residents on all sides of the issue.

In my opinion, the policing issue has been handled with far too much secrecy, and has thus alienated many residents who otherwise might support a transition. It would have made far more sense to have had consultation meetings with residents before any report requesting a Surrey Police force was written. McCallum squandered considerable political capital, and likely can’t get it back.

Concerns that the new police force would cause an immediate steep jump in taxes have been eased – for now. However, Surrey will remain badly under-policed for many years to come if the police force remains as small as the report calls for. To boost it by any significant amount will be very costly for taxpayers.

The two questions which should be foremost in residents’ minds are these: How can the quality of policing service in Surrey improve? And, how can it do so at a reasonable cost to taxpayers?

If the new direction in policing wins approval from Victoria, the Surrey Police will be under a cloud of suspicion from the beginning, due largely to political bungling. To ease that cloud, a referendum would be a worthwhile step, in order to ensure that the public can clearly indicate it prefers the new force or wishes to retain the RCMP. The cost would be minimal, when compared to the $39.2 million transition cost outlined in the report.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca – email frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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