Province directs Surrey, B.C., to stay with local police force, despite city’s wishes

Province directs Surrey, B.C., to stay with local police force, despite city's wishes

The safety of the residents of Surrey, B.C., and the rest of the province is “non-negotiable” and is the provincial government’s main reason for forcing the city to move ahead with an independent police force, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said.

He said Wednesday the city’s transition to the RCMP would be going “backwards,” despite the wishes of Surrey’s mayor and council.

Farnworth said he expects this to be “the final decision” in the tempest between Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke and the provincial government where the transition to an independent police force was halted to return to the RCMP.

Locke was elected last October on the promise to revert to the Mounties well into the hiring process for the Surrey Police Service, where millions had been spent on the change.

Farnworth said he spoke to Locke about the government’s decision, and she didn’t agree with it.

Earlier this year, Farnworth said he wanted the city to continue with the transition citing safety reasons over the RCMP, which has staff vacancy and recruiting issues in B.C. and across Canada.

“At this point, moving forward with the Surrey Police Service is the only path forward to protect the safety of the people of Surrey and across B.C.,” Farnworth said during a news conference.

Despite the provincial government’s wishes and an offer of $150 million to help with the transition to a local department, the mayor and council doubled down on the decision, saying last month it would stick with the RCMP.

On Wednesday, Farnworth said the province has recommitted to providing the city with that funding to help offset costs and to prevent the added expense from being downloaded onto city taxpayers.

Farnworth said his decision under the Police Act will avoid a crisis in policing in the province, stopping Surrey from taking Mounties from other areas of the province.

He said he carefully considered the city’s report on moving back to the RCMP, but Surrey has not demonstrated that doing so would be safe or would not affect other communities.

A statement from Locke on Wednesday said Farnworth’s decision is misguided and based on inaccurate assumptions.

She said the province was disingenuous when it gave council options on how policing in Surrey would proceed, when the city never had any choice in the matter.

Locke said Farnworth’s selective interpretation of the Police Act is of concern, noting that municipalities also have the authority under the act to choose the model by which they police their areas.

She said she’ll be meeting with council and city staff to “explore our options.”

“I will also be asking for a face-to-face meeting with the minister to understand how he intends to compensate the significant tax burden that will be placed on Surrey residents and businesses as a result of his decision to continue with the Surrey Police Service.”

The policing debate has grown fractious between the province and Locke, who accused Farnworth of bullying and misogyny earlier this year.

Farnworth had said the city was playing “games” when it didn’t immediately provide details about how it would manage the switch.

This summer, Farnworth said he will begin consultation on legislation to be considered this fall to ensure that this type of situation never happens again.

Farnworth said a collaboration between the city, the Surrey Police Service and the RCMP is essential to continue the transition, and he has made it clear to all parties that he expects them to work together to achieve the goal of keeping people safe.

In order to help with the transition, the ministry has appointed Jessica McDonald to fulfil requirements put in place by the minister.

McDonald, the former president of BC Hydro, will help the parties meet timelines, facilitate dispute resolution and ensure effective communication to complete the transition, the government said in a statement.

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, who wrote a detailed report on how Surrey could transition to an independent police force, was at Farnworth’s news conference.

He said the government had no other choice.

“The RCMP simply could not meet the challenge of the numbers.”

Oppal, a former judge, said he has been providing consulting services to the Surrey Police Service and speaks regularly with Farnworth.

A statement issued from the Surrey Police Union, which represents officers on the independent force said the province’s decision brings confidence and stability to those officers who have committed their careers to Surrey.

“It is with great relief that we can now put the uncertainty surrounding policing behind us and focus on what really matters: public safety,” the statement said.

“Citizens across Canada want change in policing. Change can be difficult, but change is necessary.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.

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