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'Safest path forward': Province recommends Surrey continue with municipal force transition

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has recommended the Surrey Police Service transition continue. The city can forego the recommendations and continue with RCMP if they wish.

B.C. Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth is “strongly recommending” the City of Surrey continue transitioning from the RCMP to a municipal police force, following a review of the contentious ongoing project.

On Friday morning, Farnworth announced that policing should be turned over from Surrey RCMP to the Surrey Police Service (SPS) and he is now willing to provide money to the city to do so.

However, Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke was quick to denounce Farnworth’s recommendation and said Surrey will be keeping the Mounties.

“Our decision is exactly what it was in December; that we will keep the RCMP as the police of jurisdiction,” said Locke.

“That is Surrey’s choice to make and council made that decision; we made it five months ago and our decision has not changed,” reiterated Locke at Surrey City Hall following Farnworth’s announcement in Victoria.

Locke took issue with the ministry’s redacted report, which was only handed to her at the same time it was made public during Farnworth’s press conference.

Locke held up the report — the ministry’s analysis of SPS and Surrey RCMP plans to continue policing in Surrey — showing the numerous redacted pages.

“How on earth are we expected to make an informed decision?” she asked rhetorically.

Nevertheless, she said city staff will review the report she called “disingenuous” and “half baked.”

Under the B.C. Police Act, the City of Surrey can forego the recommendations and continue with RCMP, but they must meet binding conditions from the province, in order to meet overall public safety objectives per the act. Furthermore, Farnworth said he’s now willing to fund the transition so long as it maintains course to install the presently nascent SPS.

But Farnworth said the province has not set a dollar amount for how much it is willing to subsidize the continued transition to SPS. The province’s report notes the transition will cost $235 million to complete and thereafter annual operating costs will be about $30 million more than they would be with Surrey RCMP. The province will not provide financial support should Surrey maintain the RCMP, Farnworth clarified.

Locke said she does not have a price point at which she would consider continuing the transition and said she hopes to meet with Farnworth and provincial officials on the matter.

It was November 2018 when Locke voted alongside Safe Surrey Coalition and then Mayor Doug McCallum to begin the transition. Soon after, citing costs and a lack of plan, Locke left McCallum’s party and formed her own. She defeated McCallum in October 2022 with a mandate to halt the transition, authorized by Farnworth in February 2020.

To date, the SPS has hired over 390 sworn officers and civilian support staff. Of these, about 330 are sworn officers, including new recruits currently in various stages of training. And of those 330, 219 are under command of the Surrey RCMP as the transition continues along. Surrey’s detachment has 734 officers leaving it with about 515 Mounties.

Because SPS is hiring more officers than an agreement stipulates that they can replace Mounties, the city is footing the bill for extra officers. Locke said this is costing the city $8 million per month.

Locke said the report’s executive summary confirms the city’s financial concerns of keeping the transition going, namely the $235-million price tag and ongoing annual operational costs without a federal 10 per cent RCMP subsidy each detachment gets.

A key cost the ministry will not pick up if Locke sticks to the RCMP is a $72-million severance package for existing SPS officers — a deal Locke called a “golden goose.”

Locke has maintained even with the severance costs, the city will still come out ahead financially keeping the RCMP.

Recruitment of officers still a key concern

Recruitment and human resource challenges is at the heart of a key condition from Farnworth — that the Surrey RCMP not poach officers from B.C. municipal detachments should the transition end.

According to the ministry, the City of Surrey’s latest plan under Locke to return to RCMP is not safe and would be at the expense of staffing other RCMP vacancies and staffing needs in the province. 

Farnworth said there are 1,500 RCMP vacancies throughout the province and if Surrey reverts back to the RCMP it would exacerbate policing challenges faced by municipalities and Indigenous communities.

"Everyone deserves to be safe in their community and all British Columbians deserve secure, stable policing they can count on,” said Farnworth. 

"The people of Surrey are very frustrated by years of uncertainty over this debate, but we must move forward without reducing police presence when we need it the most,” the minister added.

The ministry found the RCMP’s "corporate ability to staff critical positions which has now become an acute concern for the government.” The province said the RCMP has had challenges requiring the number of officers needed to address attrition and growth. 

But Locke said the same recruitment concerns exist if the SPS transition continues. She noted the Justice Institute of BC is not graduating enough new officers. The SPS announced in March its first 14 new officers had graduated from JIBC and it has 24 recruits in training.

RCMP and SPS respond

The head of the RCMP in B.C. Dwayne McDonald spoke Friday on the report and said he will heed to the direction he receives.

McDonald and Surrey RCMP Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards said the RCMP is capable of re-stocking its team of Mounties back to the 734 on-duty officers.

“Officers don’t grow on trees” and regardless of whether it’s Surrey RCMP or SPS, recruitment will remain a challenge, said Edwards.

The RCMP union’s National Police Federation president Brian Sauvé said despite past recruitment challenges for the RCMP the recruitment system has been streamlined and Surrey RCMP should be able to restore its team.

The RCMP brass was mindful of noting about two-thirds of the 1,500 vacancies are “soft vacancies” due to the likes of leaves of absences and maternity leaves.

Surrey Police Service Chief Norm Lipinski issued a statement expressing hope that the city would continue transitioning.

“It is my hope that council will recognize that now is the time to continue with this significant change in their policing model that will bring progressive and effective policing to the city for future generations,” said Lipinski.

A chief concern of Farnworth’s if the city keeps the Surrey RCMP is an exodus of officers from SPS. For that reason he said he placed more strict conditions on such a decision.

Recommendations from provincial government

The province says there are multiple conditions for both reversing the transition and retaining RCMP or continuing with the SPS transition.

In order for Surrey to continue with the SPS, the following conditions must be met: it must have a strategic implementation advisor and a BC RCMP Senior Transition Leader for Surrey, and there must be provincial oversight of SPS hiring plans.

If the city reverses the transition and retains RCMP, it must have: a strategic implementation advisor, individualized HR plans, a revised city plan, BC RCMP Senior Contract Officer and a BC RCMP Senior Transition Leader for Surrey. 

The "revised city plan" should look at a re-staffing plan that does not prioritize Surrey RCMP re-staffing over other BC RCMP vacancies and resourcing needs and includes transition reverse components and updated costs. 

"The government recognizes this is an unprecedented situation that threatens public safety and therefore has offered to discuss financial or other supports to the city going forward,” states the report. 

Farnworth received submissions from the city, RCMP and SPS last December but the information received was incomplete. Then in February, supplemental submissions were received after more information was requested. 

A decision was set to be delivered from the provincial government earlier in 2023, but Farnworth announced it was delayed in January

In making the decision, the ministry considered the recent Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission Report and BC Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act. The federal public safety minister’s review of RCMP contract policing was also considered. 

More reaction from the 'strong recommendation'

In Surrey, the local trade board expressed disappointment.

“We are disappointed that the B.C. government has made this decision,” said Anita Huberman, president and CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, in a statement. “However, with this decision, the City of Surrey can reinvigorate its public safety efforts, advocate for needed wrap-around support services to support the police service and focus on a renewed Surrey economic and jobs plan. We look forward to working with the mayor and council as well as the chosen police service to provide industry input on economic issues.”

The BC Green Party, meanwhile, said the BC NDP provincial government had made the decision too political.

“The months of uncertainty is a lack of provincial leadership that has cost the taxpayers of Surrey millions. It’s been a year since the committee tabled our report recommending a provincial police service and embracing a regional approach. There has been little progress with implementation," stated Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.

“The committee understood the politics involved in policing and that is why we recommended Minister Farnworth establish an all-party committee to depoliticize policing transformation. Instead, the BC NDP have decided to shoulder the entire burden on their own, weakening the overdue recommendation for change, and furthering the politicization of police services at the local and provincial level," he added.

The director's conditions. Province of British Columbia