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Surrey police transition ‘recommendation’ raising more questions for a decision

Surrey's police transition recruitment strategy poses a problem for the province, regardless of which force is chosen, according to South Surrey-White Rock MLA Elenore Sturko
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth

The aftermath of a heavily redacted report from the province’s Director of Police Services, recommending the City of Surrey maintain course on its police force transition, has produced more questions than answers, including when a final decision may be made.

The report, released April 28, is 503 pages long and based on an analysis of reports from the Surrey RCMP and Surrey Police Service on how each organization may transition back to a full force, from the current hybrid force. However, those reports are nearly entirely redacted as is much of the director’s analysis.

The report recommends that the City of Surrey continue to proceed with the SPS despite its intention to reverse the transition and keep the RCMP. The report does not provide a timeline for when Surrey must make such a decision.

“While the review process will understandably take some time, staff are working through it as efficiently as possible. Subsequently, the report will be brought back to council in the near future for its careful consideration,” Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke told council members at a meeting on Monday.

To date, the SPS has hired over 390 sworn officers and civilian support staff. Of these, about 330 are sworn officers, including new recruits currently in various stages of training. And of those 330, 219 are under command of the Surrey RCMP as the transition continues along. Surrey’s detachment has 734 officers thus leaving it with about 515 Mounties.

The report, based on information to Dec. 31, 2022, states the RCMP would need to hire or re-hire 161 officers to get to the full complement of 734 officers.

Recruitment of new officers a problem regardless of force: MLA

On Monday, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who made the “strong recommendation,” faced questions from opposition members in committee.

What the report does not explain is the rationale for recommending the SPS on grounds the RCMP needs to fill as many as 1,500 RCMP officer vacancies across the province. The director has placed the condition on the RCMP that it cannot take officers from other RCMP detachments. But no such condition is placed on the SPS, which needs to raise more than three times the amount of new officers, thus raising the eyebrows of Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, one of Farnworth’s predecessors as Solicitor General.

“I see a bit of an imbalance with respect to the minister's terms and conditions,” said Morris.

“The minister's imposed seven conditions on the RCMP to hire 161 officers over a short period of time and, in my estimation, doesn't give much consideration to the 300 Surrey Police Service officers who are currently serving that can simply patch over to the RCMP would be available to do this.

“This is compared to the three conditions for the Surrey Police Service to hire 500 officers, which, in my experience and estimation, will have the similar impacts on police resources throughout the province but with no imposed time constraints,” said Morris. 

South Surrey-White Rock MLA Elenore Sturko likewise asked how it makes sense to continue a process that requires over 500 new hires as compared to halting the transition.

“Can the minister explain how 161 people — potentially new recruits to the RCMP, RCMP officers from out of province or perhaps even SPS members patching over to join the Surrey RCMP — would be more disruptive to policing in our province than trying to find more than 500 members to fill those positions in the SPS?” asked Sturko.

Farnworth replied that the RCMP’s de-transition plan, as noted in the report, prioritized Surrey over other RCMP detachments and provincial units.

“Just to get into the weeds a little bit, maybe the minister would please talk a little bit about where the SPS is going to get more than 500 people?” asked Sturko.

“What if we end up having a bunch of individuals coming from the RCMP in rural areas and joining the SPS? Will that still not create an unstable environment? …would that not be exacerbating the problem, because it's actually much more people? It's more than 500 people … So is it not a bigger disruption, in the mind of this minister, than 161 people?” asked Sturko.

Farnworth conceded that the SPS recruitment plan was “not complete.”

And it’s unclear what that SPS recruitment plan is specifically, as it’s been redacted from the report.

Not stated in the report is how many Mounties have switched over to SPS, however the RCMP says the count is roughly 100. Sturko said the report does not contemplate those 100 officers returning to the RCMP, thus reducing the burden of recruitment.

The report provides few details about where recruits will come from, if not from other municipal detachments or the provincial E-Division force. At committee, however, Farnworth clarified the Justice Institute of B.C. had increased its recruit seats from 144 to 192 since the transition was first contemplated in 2018.

Morris, however, questioned how much that increase can accommodate SPS and how much is earmarked for retirements and population growth. The SPS announced in March its first 14 new officers had graduated from JIBC and it has 24 recruits in training — over three years after the transition had been approved.

SPS transition subsidy not yet negotiated: Farnworth

Another key component of the transition that arose from the report’s announcement was the commitment by the ministry to fund the ongoing SPS transition but not the return to the RCMP.

The report did not provide details of its financial analysis of the two plans other than to state that the city’s estimates are correct: the transition will cost $235 million in total by the time it is complete in 2027 and following that the SPS would cost an additional $30 million per year to operate.

The report does not detail what those transition costs are specifically, and Locke has claimed in the past they could be even higher, with matters such as a costly information technology system still not fully costed. The city has already spent $104 million on the transition, to Dec. 31, 2022

Ongoing transition costs include money being spent by SPS to onboard officers yet still have them waiting to be deployed (and working on desk duties), hence the city is paying about $8 million per month more than originally contemplated (an agreement stipulates a gradual exchange of incoming SPS and outgoing RCMP officers).

Last Friday when asked how much money the province could supply Surrey with, to subsidize the transition costs, originally estimated to be $45 million, Farnworth said the figure had yet to be contemplated. However, asked by Sturko if it could be as much as $150 million, Farnworth did not confirm or deny such a number.

“We will be sitting down with the city of Surrey, as I've indicated, to talk about the costs pressures that they are facing,” said Farnworth.

Sturko noted the subsidy would essentially see all of the province’s taxpayers fund the transition, when it had originally been contemplated as a municipal project. The runaway costs led to a 12.5 per cent tax hike this year.

Locke’s initial reaction to the report was to state that they would continue to proceed with the RCMP, as she had previously argued costs.

The report states the city would owe $72 million for severance for SPS employees should SPS be disbanded, money that the city will not receive assistance with, should it make such a decision.

But were the city to keep the RCMP it would enjoy a cheaper service, thanks to a federal subsidy of 10 per cent and lower overall costs, including staff salaries. The report notes RCMP services across the province cost $289 per capita as opposed to $448 per capita for municipal services.

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With files from Alanna Kelly, Glacier Media