Public safety campaign promises helped clinch victories for the mayors-elect in B.C.’s two biggest cities last month.
As Surrey’s Brenda Locke promised to reverse her city’s transition from the RCMP to its own municipal police force, Ken Sim in Vancouver promised to hire and deploy 100 new police officers and 100 mental health nurses in his city.
While those pledges were enough to secure victories at the ballot box, experts caution they may prove too ambitious to deliver on.
“The debate that’s going on in Surrey right now is the colour of the uniform, which is absolutely ridiculous. The debate should be how are we going to deliver a more effective, efficient and accountable police service to the citizens of Surrey,” said Kash Heed, who was a superintendent with the Vancouver Police Department and chief constable of the West Vancouver Police Department before serving as the province’s minister of public safety and solicitor general under the BC Liberals.
He said discussions over public safety in both Surrey and Vancouver have been focused on the wrong priorities.
“You could hire 200 or 300 more officers [in Vancouver] and it may not make any difference if they get absorbed into the fabric. You’ve got to start doing business differently,” said Heed, who was elected to serve as a city councillor in Richmond during the October municipal elections. “And Ken Sim needs to realize this … hiring more and more and more does not necessarily create a safer environment or reduce crime.”
“The situation in Surrey is a product of one man’s folly,” according to Simon Fraser University criminology professor Rob Gordon.
Outgoing Mayor Doug McCallum won at the ballot box in 2018 in part by campaigning on the promise to establish a municipal force for the largest city in Canada still policed by the Mounties.
Since then, about 300 municipal police officers have been recruited to the Surrey Police Service (SPS), half of whom have been deployed into policing operations alongside the RCMP.
“One thing’s for sure. You can’t have two police services or two groups of people wearing uniforms working alongside of each other for very long,” Gordon, a former police officer, said.
The Surrey RCMP detachment has about 1,000 officers deployed within the city. But Gordon said the SPS has so far fallen short of expectations for recruiting members of the Surrey RCMP to transition over to the municipal police force.
While it would not be impossible to reverse course on this transition from the RCMP to SPS, Gordon said it would come at great expense to taxpayers who would have to foot the bill for terminated contracts of the newly recruited municipal officers.
The SPS estimates it will cost $64 million over five years to transition from the RCMP, while Locke has claimed retaining the Mounties would save taxpayers $520 million over five years.
Meanwhile, the municipal force’s budget for this year is set at $72.5 million in addition to the ongoing transition costs.
Locke, who served on Surrey city council before winning the mayoralty, told BIV that city staff are still crunching the numbers “but I can tell you what they have said: It is far, far more fiscally prudent to stick with the RCMP than it is to continue down this path with the Surrey Police Service.
“So I think that’s sort of the most I can tell you about that. There's no question that it is … better financially for us to stay with the RCMP.”
Both she and Gordon said most of the expenditures associated with stopping the SPS transition are associated with personnel, while all the capital costs related to recently acquired hardware such as cars or investments in IT can be fully recovered.
“I lay some of this mess at the door of the provincial government because the bottom-line with policing in B.C. is that all policing is the responsibility of the provincial government, not the municipal government,” Gordon said.
That puts the ultimate decision in the hands of B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who would have to sign off on a plan to reverse this transition after previously agreeing to let Surrey create its own municipal force.
Locke said she expects to see by the end of November a report requested by Farnworth detailing how the city would disband the SPS.
“This is going to be mired in litigation over the next four years of this term of [Surrey city] council if they turn it back. The litigation, the lawyers involved, the costs – again, bearing the costs are the taxpayers of Surrey,” said Heed. “There are other things they can do to mitigate this. They can go through the transition, and they can slow it down a little bit more to kind of firm up what the vision should be or what the product needs to be at the end of the day. I firmly believe they can do that.”
He suggested a hybrid police model similar to that of Halifax, where the RCMP supplements Halifax Regional Police in suburban and rural areas, might also be one option.
Both Heed and Gordon have been long-time advocates for a significant rethink of how policing is done in B.C. The pair believe the ideal model would be to create regional police forces that would operate across Metro Vancouver, the Okanagan and the Capital Region on Vancouver Island.
“This experiment has proven that it’s been very, very difficult for any municipal government to have their own independent municipal police force at this time,” Heed said. “The taxpayers are the ones that are bearing the brunt of this.”
North of the Fraser, Vancouver’s Sim said at his first news conference since winning the mayoralty that his No. 1 priority would be hiring 100 new police officers and 100 mental health nurses.
“We will provide the funding for it; it’s going to happen,” he said Oct. 17.
Sim did not make himself available for an interview prior to deadline.
The mayor-elect estimated during the campaign that this initiative would cost $20 million a year over five years for a total cost of $100 million.
But how this pledge will be funded will remain murky until Sim and council begin 2023 budget deliberations in December.
“What we’re going to do when we’re in office is we’re going to go line by line on those financial statements, and we’re going to see where we can reprioritize,” he said. “But I want to be very clear – and we said this during the election – we’re going to maintain all the current service levels. We’re just going to look for those things that are discretionary, that we don’t necessarily have to [fund]. We can make a better choice.”
The challenge is that the city cannot simply approach the Justice Institute and put in an order for 100 new recruits, according to Gordon.
“What the City of Vancouver needs if it’s going to go this route are experienced and qualified police officers,” he said. “And there aren’t that many around in B.C. that are looking for jobs.”
But if the SPS were to be disbanded, Gordon said that might open up an avenue for Sim’s campaign pledge.
“He’s got a pool of people now sitting out in Surrey staring at unemployment insurance,” Gordon said.