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Surrey’s IT police system gamble could nearly double transition costs: expert

City assuming it can keep using RCMP’s systems, but if it can’t, the extra price tag could be $32.5 million
surrey-mayor-doug-mccallum-g-wood
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum

The City of Surrey’s police force transition costs could nearly double if an assumption – that the new municipal department can use the RCMP’s information technology (IT) network – fails, according to estimates provided by a top expert at Canada’s digital services agency.

The city’s planned two-year transition is estimated to cost $39 million, but that sum is based on the assumption its new municipal force will temporarily or permanently share an IT network with the banished RCMP, via the federal agency Shared Services Canada (SSC), and do so for only $7.5 million.

“The Surrey PD could contract back the same IT infrastructure and support that the Surrey RCMP currently benefits from,” states the June 2019 Surrey Policing Transition Plan authored by City of Vancouver, City of Surrey, Vancouver Police Department and Simon Fraser University professor Curt Griffiths.

“It is assumed that, for the purposes of the transition, the Surrey PD will replace certain IT systems and overlay these new Surrey PD systems with the existing critical IT infrastructure at RCMP ‘E’ Division,” stated the report.

Such an option could be permanent, but it would be dependent on negotiations with the RCMP, according to the report.

“Depending on the best overall value for the Surrey PD and the RCMP’s willingness to remain a long-term law enforcement partner to the Surrey PD, the IT services provided by RCMP ‘E’ Division on a contractual basis could also remain in place indefinitely.”

But Surrey councillor Jack Hundial has posed the question, “What if this assumption is wrong?”

What if the RCMP couldn’t share its “mission-critical operational IT systems” with the Surrey Police Department (SPD), as the plan suggests, or it had legitimate reasons not to?

The Mounties are provided an IT network by Shared Services Canada, which provides all federal agencies with digital services.

The transition plan states there will be an IT transition team set up between city officials, RCMP representatives and members of Shared Services Canada. However none of these agencies have spoken about IT systems, to date.

According to a Shared Services Canada spokesperson, via email, the federal agency did not have anyone consulting with the City of Surrey. “Any contact from SSC was through the RCMP.”

When Glacier Media asked the RCMP for its thoughts on providing IT services to the City of Surrey upon closing its Surrey detachment, spokesperson Marie-Christine Lemire responded: “We are not in a position to speak to possible plans or options outlined in a [transition plan] that the RCMP did not author or contribute to, and is formally assessing at this time in collaboration with Public Safety Canada.”

Lemire added: “In general, the RCMP does not contract out its IT systems or support to non-RCMP municipal police forces. There are multiple instances where SSC and/or the RCMP are engaged in providing very minimal IT services and support to non-RCMP organizations. However, these are provided exclusively to ensure these organizations receive National Police Services such as [Canadian Police Information Centre], which the RCMP is federally mandated to provide to all police organizations.”

Glacier Media then asked Shared Services Canada if such an arrangement is even possible. The agency responded that no municipal police force is serviced by them but it has been “specifically authorized to provide provincial and municipal governments IT services for end-users (other than support services for these end users), as long as doing so does not involve SSC incurring additional costs or hiring new resources.”

Surrey’s police transition manager, Terry Waterhouse, confirmed the city had yet to discuss IT networks with the RCMP or SSC.

“A transition of this type has never happened in Canada,” he said, “and Option A requires a federal agreement,” said Waterhouse, referring to the shared IT services option.

Waterhouse said the IT system choice, if there is one, is a decision a new police board will make.

“It’s not something I can speak to,” he said.

But Waterhouse said the decision to go with Option A – the shared services – is ultimately up to the RCMP and not the police board, because unlike Option B – to create a completely new system for SPD – it is not a unilateral process.

The shared services option, said Waterhouse, “is based on an assumption that a reasonable approach would be to keep the existing infrasructure and have Surrey have access to the infrastructure.”

According to the transition plan “the foundational IT infrastructure and the operational systems it supports would continue to be hosted by the RCMP, either within Surrey RCMP Headquarters, at RCMP ‘E’ Division Headquarters (Green Timbers), or at Shared Services Canada.”

Under Option A, “these IT expenditures would be incurred late in 2019, throughout 2020, and in early 2021. Thereafter, the main ongoing annual cost would be the fee-for-service charged back to Surrey PD by the RCMP ‘E’ Division.”

Mayor Doug McCallum, who declined to speak about this matter, has said repeatedly SPD officers would be on the ground in April 2021 – although he didn’t state in what sort of capacity.

The RCMP declined to answer questions as to why would they not continue to service SPD, whether there are national security concerns, whether they want to pull out their own proprietary infrastructure from Surrey detachment to provide more rural detachments with upgrades, or whether it is too much of a risk given that such an arrangement has never been done before.

This latter question is one that Mike Jaswal, senior technical advisor for Shared Services Canada and former RCMP member, has considered.

“In my opinion, the RCMP, they don’t want to be in the brokerage business. So if Shared Services is going to be provisioning services and the RCMP is brokering that on behalf of the RCMP – RCMP doesn’t own all its services … so when you’re in the middle it’s a real no-win situation because if anything goes wrong they’re going to blame the RCMP.”

Jaswal, an expert on police IT systems, estimates a new SPD IT system, or Option B, would cost about $37 million to $40 million – that’s up to $32.5 million more than Option A and nearly as much as the $39 million transition cost estimate outlined in the plan. However, the transition plan estimates Option B would cost up to $27 million to replace the Surrey RCMP’s IT infrastructure and systems and install completely new ones. The plan states this is a “top end” estimate, and that phasing in replacement of IT infrastructure over additional years can save money. The city has factored in a $6 million total contingency.

“If you look at the network, the servers and the applications and expanding that out, they’re saying $27 million – that’s nothing,” said Jaswal.

Under the more expensive new setup the future operating budget, as planned, would not include a service fee to the RCMP, but it would include more in-house services, and this, said Jaswal, could cost even more since the federal entity has economies of scale via its nationwide procurement.

“It’s not just capital costs but ongoing maintenance,” he said.

Jaswal said IT in policing is increasingly significant – and costly. For instance, the pressure to mandate wearing of body cameras by police officers will push up costs in IT departments. Jaswal said, when it comes to body cameras, IT is nearly everything.

“The actual camera is a nominal costs. It’s the support for it; having those live streams coming back to, where? And how’s that going to be supported and stored from a privacy and legality perspective? All those nuances have to be ironed out. That’s not just an SPD issue. This is a policing issue.”

Given these complexities, it’s also unclear why Surrey would want to use an older IT system serviced by what McCallum purports to be an inferior police institution, as compared to a new municipal force. The city states it wants a police force with “local accountability and decision-making.” But outsourcing one of the most critical components of policing would do just the opposite, as Ottawa (SSC) would control the system.

As McCallum has stated repeatedly, every major city in Canada has its own police force – a key justification for the transition – and those forces control their own destiny when it comes to rolling out services.

For example, 5G IT systems will need to match the first rollout of 5G phones and networks by major telecoms to private consumers in major cities.

Digital intelligence company Cellebrite notes on its blog, “Law enforcement will need to become prepared for the new wave of 5G mobile devices that will increase the complexity of technological environments, locally and globally.”

Furthermore, “The low-latency and faster output from mission-critical [5G] applications will empower officers to become more digitally autonomous as they can spend more time in the field and less at the station,” states Celebrite.

But European police have gone public with their concerns that they are lagging behind in technology. Europol is concerned police will not be able to track criminals using 5G phones without a comparable system in place. Jaswal agrees.

“5G is a ways out in the public sector domain,” said Jaswal. “We will catch up to the private sector, but there will be a bit of a lag.”

He said large municipal forces could roll out their 5G systems before Shared Services Canada. As such, Jaswal said Surrey – should it be able to choose Option A – would be left behind other cities if Ottawa is slower than municipal forces to roll out its 5G system. The 189-page transition report makes no mention of 5G or cloud computing.

Glacier Media reached out to professor Curt Griffiths for comment, but did not receive a response.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca