The fate of the largest RCMP detachment in the country could hinge on this month’s Surrey election, although the cost and other specific details of the city’s potential switch to an independent police force remain unclear.
Doug McCallum, who served as Surrey’s mayor from 1996 to 2005, is seeking a return to the top job and has said that he would work to do away with RCMP policing at the first council meeting of the term.
Tom Gill, another mayoral candidate, has said he would hold a referendum on the issue within 12 months.
A Research Co. poll released in July found that public safety was the top concern for Surrey voters, with 56 per cent believing the city should have an independent police force. Twenty-seven per cent said the city should stick with the RCMP, while 17 per cent were unsure.
The most-recent debate over the Surrey RCMP’s future comes as the city once again grapples with a wave of high-profile killings, including those of a minor-league hockey coach and two teens.
A recent Globe and Mail investigation into the RCMP’s municipal policing revealed that jurisdictions using the Mounties offered significant savings for taxpayers, but the discount appeared to come at a price. Data from 21 B.C. jurisdictions showed that RCMP forces had disproportionately low staffing levels, with officers carrying significantly higher caseloads. The Globe’s analysis also found that crime rates tended to be higher in jurisdictions policed by the RCMP rather than municipal forces.
In Surrey, The Globe’s analysis found policing costs per capita were well below municipal departments in places such as Vancouver. Surrey officers also carried higher caseloads than those in Vancouver, with worse clearances when factoring in the seriousness of offences.
Mr. McCallum said in a recent interview that Surrey is the last major city in the country to be patrolled by the Mounties and has simply outgrown the force.
In 2001, Surrey’s population was approximately 350,000. It’s now about 550,000.
Mr. McCallum said switching to an independent force would mean the loss of a 10-per-cent federal subsidy that comes with using the RCMP. He said that officers in an independent force would also have to be paid higher salaries, more in line with what police make at municipal departments in cities such as Vancouver and Delta.
He said that he believes residents are willing to pay for policing to ensure the community is safe and that the city already owns key assets such as police stations and cars.
However, Mr. McCallum said the city would not raise property taxes to pay for the new force.
“We’re just going to readjust our budgets. In other words, our police budget will be a little bit more and some of our other budgets would be a little bit less. So we’ll be able to find the amount in the police budget,” he said.
When asked what other budgets would be reduced, Mr. McCallum said that had not yet been determined.
Mr. Gill in an interview said the goal of his referendum would be to offer residents a clear say on an important issue.
“I really want the voters to have an informed choice,” he said.
Mr. Gill said transition costs with a new force could be in the tens of millions of dollars and that money would come from property taxes.
He said he is not opposed to keeping the RCMP and investing in it more significantly. But he said Surrey does need its own police board to ensure greater direction and oversight of the force. Surrey’s current policing budget is about $160-million.
Bruce Hayne, a third Surrey mayoral candidate, did not provide a response to requests for comment.
Surrey last examined moving away from the RCMP in 2001. The questions then mirrored those today: Were residents getting a high enough level of policing? And would the city benefit from having its own police board instead of dealing with RCMP brass in Ottawa?
The issue of money ultimately won out. A KPMG report prepared for the city found the disadvantages of establishing a new force included the loss of the 10-per-cent subsidy and startup expenses in the range of $3-million or more.
The City of Richmond, which recently considered leaving the RCMP but stuck with the Mounties, in 2015 estimated the cost of establishing an independent force at $19.6-million. It said the force would also have higher annual operating costs and cited the loss of the 10-per-cent subsidy.
The discussion around the Surrey RCMP’s future last month prompted the force to issue a statement about its members and priorities.
“We do want to ensure the public has the correct information about who we are and how we police the City of Surrey,” the statement read.
Regarding criticism that its officers are moved from city to city and do not have any connection to Surrey, the force said that on average a member spends seven years in the community. It said 86 per cent of its officers live in Surrey or a neighbouring city.
A Surrey RCMP spokesperson said in an e-mail that the number of shootings in the city in 2018 is down compared with past years. As of late September, there had been 32 shootings so far this year. That compared with 59 last year, 61 in 2016 and 88 in 2015.
B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety said that while the agreement involving the RCMP spans 20 years, municipalities can opt out with two years notice.
Wade Deisman, a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said in an interview that he can understand why some Surrey residents are drawn to the idea of an independent police force.
“Municipal forces are capable of building longer-term partnerships that are more accountable, more transparent, more responsive and more based on equal footing,” he said.
“You pay for what you get is the bottom line,” he said. “If you want more responsiveness in policing, I think you’re going to have to pay more.”