RCMP will be gaining new access to municipal traffic cameras in Surrey to help with their investigations as fears grow that a bystander will be caught in the crossfire of a gang conflict that has led to 31 shootings this year.
The plan was among several tactics announced by senior Mounties, Surrey's mayor and the B.C. solicitor-general on Friday as they sought to reassure the public in light of a major conflict among low-level drug gangs in the city southeast of Vancouver.
RCMP will gain 24-hour access to Surrey's network of 330 traffic cameras as well as an additional 75 traffic cameras that are to be installed soon, police told a news conference attended by Mayor Linda Hepner at the main Surrey detachment of the RCMP.
Since Jan. 1, there have been 31 shootings in the city, with eight injured and one fatality as drug gangs used firearms to settle their disputes. This week, police have made five arrests and seized 13 guns linked to the gang violence. On March 16, RCMP seized more than $4.5-million in drugs.
RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Fordy, the officer in charge of the Surrey detachment, said police will not be continually monitoring cameras, but will have easier access to help specific criminal investigations. He suggested RCMP will have access to the camera images within their offices, something they have not had in the past.
Mr. Fordy said he did not expect the B.C. privacy commissioner would have any concerns.
But the proposal raises troubling questions, such as how the information from the camera footage will be used and for how long.
"We need to be careful that extraordinary solutions adopted to fight a dangerous situation in the present don't open the door to massive and permanent police surveillance in the future," said Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
Ms. Hepner said that in the past, police might not have had access to images at times when municipal staff were not around, but that will change with the new approach. Mr. Fordy said he had requested the policy change.
While the focus has been on Surrey, RCMP said Friday that the conflict is part of a region-wide fight over control of the drug trade.
"This issue is not unique to Surrey. The criminal element does not respect the boundaries of a city," said Mr. Fordy, adding that police do not want to follow any strategy that would shift the conflict to another community.
"We want to arrest these people. We want to advance prosecutions and we want them to be rightly dealt with through the judicial system."
RCMP assistant commissioner Dan Malo, the district commander for the Lower Mainland, said he and investigators are deeply worried about members of the public being hit by stray bullets fired by gang members settling their scores.
"We've been lucky that that has not yet happened," he said in an interview after the main news conference. "These young kids are not waiting for opportunities where there's nobody around. They're not organized enough to make sure that that happens so we simply have to stop it."
There's a particular sensitivity in Surrey to bystanders and gang conflicts. In October, 2007, fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg, aged 55, and 22-year-old Chris Mohan were killed in a Surrey apartment along with four men with criminal-gang links. It was the worst gangland slaying in B.C. history.
Increased police air support, RCMP major crime investigators and resources from the Lower Mainland canine units are also being deployed into Surrey, officials said.
Police declined to provide numbers on officers and other resources, citing confidentiality issues around their approaches.
Ms. Hepner suggested Friday's news conference was about drawing a line against the gangsters.
"If you don't draw the line, nothing gets done," she said