Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Surrey policing: 'Power politics' at play in final decision, says criminologist

Big political players, institutions and political considerations circle around the provincial government in deciding to approve a City of Surrey plan to maintain the RCMP
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth must either approve the City of Surrey’s plan or maintain the transition | Photo: Province of British Columbia

With the fate of policing in Surrey in the hands of the provincial government, big institutional, personal, and political interests are set to confront the only interest that should matter — that of the public, says criminologist Rob Gordon, of Simon Fraser University.

“I don’t think the public interest is at play here at all. I think it is power politics involving individuals and institutions,” said Gordon.

On Monday, city council voted 6-3 to approve a plan to stop a transition project from Surrey RCMP to the presently nascent Surrey Police Service (SPS).

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth must either approve the City of Surrey’s plan or maintain the transition.

The City of Surrey is poised to save $235 million over the next five years in operating costs, should it reverse course on its municipal police transition project and maintain the RCMP — but not before shelling out more than $155 million, according to fiscal estimates presented in a staff report.

Conversely, finishing the transition is estimated to cost, in total, in excess of $268 million, when the estimate put forth to the public by former mayor Doug McCallum was $45 million. It is such costs and lack of transparency from SPS and its new police board that spurred a campaign to de-transition from newly elected mayor Brenda Locke.

Farnworth — who was not made available for comment — has previously stated he will await the report, now in his hands, for analysis. He has hinted at little, other than to say Surrey will bear all the direct costs, one way or another, and his primary concern is ensuring the city is adequately policed.

Farnworth previously approved the transition, in February 2020. Then, while it was assumed a municipal force would cost more, proponents spoke of the value of a local police board instead of more central decision-making by the RCMP. Officer retention within the community was also seen as a benefit of a local force.

Police reform report counteracts desire to maintain Surrey RCMP

Farnworth’s decision aligned with council’s wishes and did not appear to conflict with provincial interests. But this time around the same cannot be said, Gordon told Glacier Media..

At stake now is an extensive all-party report on police reform to the B.C. Legislature last April that recommends getting rid of the RCMP and establishing a provincial force.

Presently, the RCMP is the provincial police service responsible for rural and unincorporated areas as well as small municipalities. Only some B.C. cities have formed their own police forces, typically upon incorporation decades ago.

Surrey is the largest municipal RCMP department in the country; more than twice the size of Burnaby’s, which is the second largest. It’s the only major city in Canada without its own force, a key point made by proponents.

“So, there’s a short plan and a long plan. The long plan is on Farnworth’s desk at the moment. What he’s going to do with that, nobody really knows for sure. I think to some extent, he's been waiting to see what the outcome of the Surrey nonsense was going to be. Now, he knows he's going to have to deal with the all-party report,” said Gordon.

‘Big Red Machine’ at work

If Farnworth allows Surrey to keep the RCMP as its police detachment it maintains a significant foothold for the Mounties in the province. This would be counter-intuitive to forming a provincial force, said Gordon, who notes Locke is aware that should the province ditch the RCMP provincewide, Surrey will be back in the same boat.

The RCMP, or “Big Red Machine” as Gordon calls it, is a powerful player in politics, especially in B.C.

Gordon notes former RCMP assistant commissioner Peter German was involved as a consultant for the city’s de-transition report, which has been criticized by the SPS and RCMP critics for overstating the savings.

German’s an “ambitious” man, said Gordon, and one who’s had the ear of Premier David Eby through various consulting reports on money laundering.

What’s in the interest of the RCMP, as an institution, may not be in the interest of the public, said Gordon.

The all-party police reform report highlighted problems with the RCMP responding to community needs, providing local governance and challenges in simultaneously meeting federal, provincial, and municipal policing priorities.

Meanwhile, Wally Oppal, former B.C. Attorney General, has consulted on the original transition plan and Gordon sees Oppal playing a role in Farnworth’s decision.

All in all, powerful forces are at play and Gordon isn’t convinced the public interest will be served 100 per cent.

Electoral politics favours an SPS decision

Gordon also acknowledges riding/election politics in Surrey may also be at stake.

“It’s a very important consideration but do you know what a weekend in politics is like?”

Whereas Gordon says the planned fall 2024 provincial election is a long time from now, former Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Kash Heed is more of the view riding politics will play into Farnworth’s decision.

In order to understand this dynamic, Heed says it's relevant to address the demographics of Surrey’s ridings, granted the transition has been largely supported by South Asian residents — including Sikh temple leadership and the prominent community safety group Wake Up Surrey.

Surrey Police Service architect and de-elected mayor Doug McCallum lost narrowly in the October election, to Locke, a former BC Liberal MLA who fared best in local polls situated in the BC Liberal ridings of South Surrey and White Rock — which happen to be predominantly Caucasian neighbourhoods. Conversely, McCallum fared best in local polls in predominantly South Asian neighbourhoods, within central Surrey.

It is those central Surrey ridings that are considered swing ridings, notes Heed.

“If in fact we're looking at a balance of power in the next provincial election, it is most likely going to come from the Surrey area, with the NDP retaining their seats,” he said.

NDP strategists, Heed suggests, “would say, ‘if we're not going to flip the two South Surrey and White Rock seats that the Liberals already retain, we've got to make sure we retain these other primarily South Asian community, South Asian member seats.’ How you're going to do that is make the right decision.”

Nevertheless, a political decision may well align with the right decision, as Heed considers a municipal force a better governance model for local priorities.

The number one issue, said Heed, must be for Farnworth to ensure a continued transition or de-transition can address public safety.

The all-party police reform report also addresses the need to reform governance models for RCMP detachments so decisions, such as police chief (superintendent) and local priorities, aren’t made in Ottawa.

Heed said if the Surrey RCMP is kept it would be important for Farnworth to amend laws to have a new “community accountability board” for the RCMP.

“That’s the only way that you are going to have proper governance if the RCMP are going to remain here in British Columbia,” said Heed.

A decision is expected as early as January, according to reports.

[email protected]