Surrey's new mayor and council voted to keep the RCMP as its police force and freeze hiring and spending by the fledgling Surrey Police Service (SPS) Monday, a major re-think about the future direction of law enforcement in the city.
The vote followed council receiving an eight-page report compiled by three city general managers asking Mayor Brenda Locke and eight councillors to endorse one of two options: either go forward with the plan to realize the SPS or stick with the RCMP.
They choose the latter in a five-to-four vote.
Locke defeated former mayor Doug McCallum after campaigning in part against his plan to establish an independent municipal force, saying she would pull the plug on work done so far to establish the SPS and stick with the RCMP.
On Monday, she took concrete action on that promise. Locke and her Surrey Connect slate of councillors hold five of nine seats on council.
"It is time to get beyond the back and forth of policing in Surrey and bring transparency to the process," Locke said in a statement.
"Tonight's vote not only affirms my promise to restore Surrey RCMP as Police of Jurisdiction, but it will finally reveal the costs of the transition, which will be made available to the public."
The report emphasized a need to make a decision sooner rather than later.
"Timeliness is a priority to minimize uncertainty for impacted staff and the community as a whole," the report says.
The transition to an independent, municipal force for Surrey was initiated by a council motion in November 2018, shortly after McCallum's election to a fourth term as mayor. In July 2020, the province established the Surrey Police Board and in August 2020, the board created the SPS.
The option selected by council calls for Surrey to maintain the RCMP as police of jurisdiction, and direct staff to prepare a plan to "ramp-down" the SPS.
That plan will need to be endorsed by council and then sent to Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth — who is also solicitor general — for approval.
Staff are also to send a letter on council's behalf to the Surrey Police Board (SPB) to "pause all new hiring and expenditures pending further Council direction."
$21M policing budget shortfall
Currently, 154 SPS officers are working under the command of the RCMP as frontline officers in the city at part of the transition process.
The transition plan would have 295 SPS officers deployed by May 2023, with deployments of up to 35 members every two months.
The RCMP is contracted to provide 734 officers for the city, according to the report.
The report says in 2022 the city will spend $195 million on policing in the city, broken down to $72.5 million for SPS, $96.7 million for RCMP and $25.6 million for police support services.
It does not provide a transition cost estimate.
But the report says there will be a policing budget shortfall by the end of year of nearly $21 million due to "a higher than anticipated number of SPS members that are not deployed into frontline policing. As a result, the city is paying for administrative overhead in two police agencies."
Sticking with the RCMP would require a plan to increase the number of Mounties available to the city as its population grows, how to repurpose or dispose of SPS assets like vehicles, and end contracts, agreements or leases in place for equipment and facilities.
Information related to Option 2 — which would continue with the transition to the SPS — includes the need to transition 400 police support services staff from the city to the SPS Board, finalize information management and information technology systems, and transfer the control of facilities from the RCMP to the SPS.
In a Monday afternoon statement, the SPB and SPS said the staff report lacks "comprehensive information on SPS staffing levels or the financial implications associated with reversing the transition."
The statement disputes the figure of 154 officers, adding there are a further 161 officers "waiting for deployment" or working in important administrative roles.
It also warns the city has already invested over $108 million into the transition and faces "the prospect of a massive severance liability" amounting to up to $81.5 million.
"Reversing the transition would result in an estimated $188.5 million loss of investment into SPS, which is approximately six months away from being operationally ready to become the police of jurisdiction," the board and service claimed.
Too far gone? Referendum?
Speaking ahead of Monday's meeting, Coun. Doug Elford, of former Mayor Doug McCallum's Safe Surrey Coalition which spearheaded the transition, says the process is too far along.
He's hopeful Farnworth will agree.
"I can not see the government going back on this," Elford said. "We've invested too much money, time and effort into getting to this point and we're almost there.
"I'm hopeful that we can continue on forward with this change in the model because it's definitely needed for a city the size of Surrey."
Coun. Linda Annis with the Surrey First slate, said the choice ought to be put to citizens in a referendum.
"It's been a hugely controversial topic," Annis told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition. "We need to be … decisive in terms of where we're going with this and I think the best way to do that is have a referendum."
She attempted to amend Monday's motion to call for a referendum, but it did not pass.