British Columbia’s Solicitor-General has suspended the entire Surrey police board and replaced it with a temporary administrator, as the province is intent on speeding up the city’s transition from the RCMP to the municipal force.
Mike Farnworth said Thursday that he appointed retired Abbotsford police chief Mike Serr for 12 to 18 months to oversee the change and to ensure it moves forward with efficiency rather than because of any particular issue with the board.
“This appointment was made under Section 8 of the Police Amendment Act, 2023, after careful consideration of the work by the Surrey Police Board, which has been limited due to the lack of progress from the City of Surrey in advancing the police model transition” to the Surrey Police Service (SPS), Mr. Farnworth said in a statement.
The move is a dramatic escalation in the conflict between the provincial government, which views sustaining the RCMP in Surrey as destabilizing for B.C., and Mayor Brenda Locke, who campaigned on keeping the RCMP in her city.
The SPS, the municipal force, has never been able to assume a role as the legal “police of jurisdiction” because slowdowns with the RCMP and the city prevented them from getting to the required number of officers.
There are at least two other recent cases of entire police boards being replaced in Canada – Thunder Bay and Durham in Ontario – but those came about after a loss of confidence in the boards over issues of racism, harassment or leadership.
Mr. Farnworth’s move is unprecedented and will have lasting impact on policing in B.C., said Curt Griffiths, Simon Fraser University’s director of the police studies centre.
“This is uncharted waters,” said Prof. Griffiths, who did some early research on the feasibility of the transition and who has been critical of the RCMP in Surrey for dragging out the transition. “There are probably other things coming that will reshape the landscape of policing in B.C. … It’s got the province micromanaging now.”
Ms. Locke, who has said a municipal police force will give taxpayers extraordinarily higher costs for no benefit, said the move indicated a “provincial police takeover” in Surrey.
The decision to remove the board “completely removes civilian oversight and governance of policing and was done without any consultation with the City. In effect, the minister has removed checks and balances,” she said in a statement.
The battle over what kind of police force to have in Surrey has been active since 2018, when the previous mayor and council were elected with a mandate to start a new municipal force.
Then-mayor Doug McCallum forged ahead with the plan without much further public consultation, angering some residents who, with generous financial support from the national RCMP union, mounted a vocal campaign against the transition. In 2022, Surrey residents elected Ms. Locke and her new party on a promise to stop the transition.
Mr. Farnworth acknowledged that the mayor “has her views” on the issue, but he said he thinks that people in Surrey are supportive of the decision to put an administrator in place temporarily.
Prof. Griffiths said the minister’s move intervenes in what is usually strictly a municipal issue. Under the Police Act, Ms. Locke was chair of the Surrey Police Services board, despite her opposition to the force.
“Provincial governments don’t really like to get involved in these kinds of issues,” Prof. Griffiths said.
The Surrey Police Union issued a statement almost immediately, welcoming the move.
“The time has come for this policing transition to be expedited with a more streamlined process that will allow all parties to work toward the completion of the project,” said Ryan Buhrig, the union spokesperson.
“We are confident that Administrator Serr will help to facilitate an expeditious completion of the policing transition, ensuring costs are minimized for residents and enabling all officers to progress in their careers.”