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Keith Baldrey: Province plays good cop/bad cop in Surrey policing drama

Public safety minister dangles funding in front of city council while wielding staff-shortage stick.
Surrey city council is at odds with the B.C. government over the municipality's efforts to retain policing by the RCMP. | Surrey RCMP/Twitter

The controversy over the future of policing in Surrey shows no sign of ending any time soon, even though the provincial government appears to have neatly placed a straitjacket on that city’s council.

While Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke is furious at Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth for daring to “strongly recommend” that she and her council supporters reverse course and back the transition away from the RCMP and to the new Surrey Police Services, she is not holding any cards in this lengthy poker game.

Locke insists she will continue to push away from the fledgling SPS and towards keeping the RCMP detachment in her city, but it is not entirely clear how she will do that.

Farnworth adopted the recommendations in the lengthy (and in parts, heavily redacted) report from Glen Lewis, his ministry’s director of police services. The report concludes sticking with the RCMP would jeopardize the safety of Surrey residents because of the force’s serious and ongoing staff shortages.

The report leaves the door open to retaining the RCMP, but only if several mandatory conditions are met. Given that the conditions largely have to do with maintaining minimum staffing levels that appear impossible to attain, they seem impossible to meet.

That is the stick that Farnworth is holding over Surrey council’s head.

But he is also holding out a whole bunch of carrots. About 222 million of them, in fact.

After denying for the longest time that any provincial government money was in play, Farnworth promised to give Surrey about $30 million a year for five years to help pay for transition costs. Add to that pot another $72 million that won’t be spent on severance pay if Surrey does indeed continue down the SPS path, and you’re looking at financial implications of potentially $222 million.

That is a lot of money for Surrey council to say no to (if it insists and going back to the RCMP, that $150 million worth of carrots disappears and Surrey would be on the hook for all severance costs associated with shutting down SPS).

Farnworth and the provincial cabinet appear to be betting that at least one Surrey councilor defects from the pro-RCMP Locke camp and opts to take the money and run (it will only take one defector to tilt the scales).

Now, given that staff shortages are plaguing all parts of society – health care, construction, ferries etc. – it is not entirely certain that Surrey Police Services will fill all their positions in the three-year time frame envisioned in the police services director’s report.

But presumably its hiring of current RCMP officers ― who may be looking to the future in an entirely different way than Locke and her supporters ― may start increasing in number.

There is no question the RCMP of today are suffering significant problems that go well beyond staff shortages. Alberta is moving to dump the force and move to a provincial police service, and the commission into the Nova Scotia massacre was scathing in its criticism of the RCMP.

The Surrey RCMP detachment is the largest municipal department in the entire force. However, it appears that status is now under serious threat of disappearing entirely (and if it does, it could have a reverberating impact all through the province).

Nevertheless, Locke appears determined to take on the BC NDP government over this issue. But she may find it a little hard to effectively fight back in that straitjacket placed around her council.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.