If you thought Saturday’s election results would finally close the book on four years of struggle over the city’s policing transition to the Surrey Police Service from the Surrey RCMP, think again. It’s still very much a page-turner, and the final chapter has yet to be written.
Mayor-elect Brenda Locke, of Surrey Connect, pinned her campaign on reversing the controversial transition. “I’m basically hitting the ground running, there’s a lot to do. Certainly stopping the transition, halting it right now, we have to do that, getting them to stop spending,” Locke said Monday. “We need to get this in under control. The people have spoken – it’s not up to eight people (Surrey Police Board) that are provincially appointed to dictate to the residents after an election.”
Time and again, provincial Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, and Surrey NDP MLAs, have said the fate of the transition is Surrey council’s call to make.
“It’s laid out in the Police Act. They are the ones who get to decide what kind of model they want,” Farnworth told the Now-Leader on Feb. 27, 2020.
We asked this week if Farnworth will entertain reversing the Surrey policing transition given Saturday’s election results, that he said the decision is the city’s, and the majority of those council members elected campaigned on doing that, but our repeated efforts remain unanswered.
However, he said at a press scrum in Victoria on Monday that “Surrey has the ability to make that choice” but it’s not like “flicking on and off a light switch” and that Surrey will need to submit an “untransitioning” plan.
Locke said she’s trying to set up a meeting with David Eby, who is running for BC NDP leadership, and Farnworth. “I think everybody’s scrambling right now.”
Asked if, straight out of the gate, she’ll have a vote during the new council’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 7 to reverse the transition – like the outgoing council did when it announced its intention to retire the Surrey RCMP in favour of a city-made police force, at its inaugural meeting in 2018 – Locke replied “no, we won’t to that.
“To me, that was not fair, I would not do that to people. We’re going to do that at a properly constituted meeting as soon as we can right after, but no we would not do that, I would not do that there, not fair, it was inappropriate at the time – I know that now. We were so blindsided, we were given that in a green room before we went in.”
Her old/new colleagues on council harbour different views. Coun. Doug Elford, re-elected as a Safe Surrey Coalition councillor, said he’s “disappointed in the fact there’s a will to change the police.”
“Certainly now the pressure’s on the Solicitor General,” he said. “As people say, what if there’s a rebound in four years and we want to go back? Like a yo-yo, right.”
Coun. Linda Annis, re-elected as a Surrey First councillor, doesn’t think the city is in a position to reverse the transition at this point in time.
“I think we need to get the facts first. I, nor Brenda, nor anyone that was on council or for that matter any of the residents of Surrey have any idea where we’re at with the transition, really how much has been spent, and how much it will cost to reverse it. I think we need to get those facts before we can make a decision and because it is such a monumental decision – probably the biggest decision that any of us will ever make on council – we need to work with the residents and first of all get their feedback in terms of what they want us to do.
“I think at the end of the day, we need to have a referendum,” Annis said.
Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards, in charge of the Surrey RCMP – which remains the city’s police of jurisdiction – issued a post-election statement saying that while the RCMP “very much look forward to working with the newly elected mayor and council,” decisions concerning Surrey’s policing model “are not for the Surrey RCMP to make, but rather fall within the purview of the elected Mayor and Council, the City of Surrey, and the Province of BC.”
Meantime, Chief Constable Norm Lipinski, in charge of the Surrey Police Services, says “a good metaphor” for stopping the policing transition at this stage is slamming the emergency brake on a car going full-out down the Trans-Canada Highway.
“I can’t speak for the province, but why would the province want to flip police agencies every time there’s a new municipal mayor and council? I’m not sure that serves the community and I’m not sure that, when we’re talking about adequate and effective policing, that would be the best way to go. But that’s the province’s domain,” Lipinski said.
Lipinski noted the SPS has to date 300 police officers, 155 of which are “on the ground” with the others either in training or part of the adminstrative branch. There’s also a civilian staff of 55.
“We are an established, legitimate police service under the Police Act of B.C. We are the second largest police agency, we are working with the RCMP under an agreement and this agreement was borne out of the three levels of government, the committee that’s called the trilateral committee and that committee’s been in place for over two years to work out all the legal issues of the transition.”
“It isn’t symbiotic that all you do is take the same agreements and you do it the other way. You would have to start from ground zero again in all of the agreements,” Lipinski said. The SPS has purchased a lot of equipment that isn’t transferable including $17 million on IT “that is, by and large, not transferable to RCMP.”
During the election campaign Locke and her Surrey Connect slate said keeping the RCMP instead of the incoming Surrey Police Service would save Surrey residents $520 million over the next four years and forging ahead with the Surrey Police Service will result in heavy property tax increases over the next four years – averaging an estimated $965 more per year for detached homes, $424 more for townhouses and $282 for apartments.
“The truth is, it is not too late to save Surrey residents from an average tax increase of a minimum $500 each year, it’s not too late to keep the RCMP, and it’s not too late to transition the Surrey Police Service (SPS) out,” Locke said during the campaign. “There is no legal mechanism in place for transfer of assets or a termination date for the RCMP. Currently, SPS members are deployed with the RCMP under a secondment agreement.”
That $520 million claim, Lipinski said, left him and his people “scratching our heads.
“I was shocked when I heard that number. The city set aside $63 million for the transition, I have spent $34 million so far.”
“So I’d like to see an itemized account of where that came from.”
“It certainly doesn’t jibe with us,” Lipinski said.
Asked if his SPS members are freaking out at the prospect of the transition being reversed, he addressed the matter of “human capital.
“When I say 300 police officers it sounds just a number, but those are human beings with family. Many of them have sold their houses outside of B.C. – Alberta, Ontario – and came out here. When we’re talking about switching back to the RCMP, it has to be remembered and the public needs to know – no RCMP person loses their job when we do this transition to the Surrey Police Service.”
On election night, Locke said she and her team have a “great plan” to keep the Surrey RCMP as the city’s police of jurisdiction. “We will not leave any of the SPS officers behind, we will pick them up.”
Lipinski is skeptical.
“That’s easy to say but that’s not practical,” he said. “First of all, all these police officers left an organization. They would have to apply back. They may or may not get back in, there is no lateral transfer agreement that you can just go from one agency to another.”
Lipinski said he’s not feeling vulnerable to the provincial government agreeing to reverse the process.
“I’m not feeling vulnerable because they already made a decision. And this is important, I’ve been at this for two years, and in the two years consistently the province and the federal government have supported this transition. Not once, not once did I hear in two years that the province said, ‘You know, we’re going to do this but a lot depends on the election, chief, and we may have to switch.’ Not once.”
“I think the reasonable person would look at this and say it’s too far down the road.”