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Surrey is getting ready to ditch the RCMP. Will there be a domino effect?

Global News logo Global News 2019-01-26 Jesse Ferreras
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Eight days after two murdered teens were found on the side of the road in Surrey, B.C., 8,000 showed up at a sombre demonstration against gang violence last June.

While violent crime has fallen in Surrey over the past three years, the brazenness of targeted hits concerns the city’s diverse community. Another shooting happened 11 days after the rally, killing Paul Bennett, a beloved minor hockey coach in his driveway.

Surrey is Canada's 12th most populous city. Currently considered a suburb of Vancouver, its population is set to overtake its better-known neighbour’s by 2041. In recent years, the city has borne witness to shocking crimes. Six years ago, four bodies were found along the remote Colebrooke Road in three months, prompting the installation of new lights and cameras worth $80,000.

RCMP Assistant Comm. Dwayne MacDonald, Surrey's officer in charge, soon issued an open letter after the June demonstration, writing that he was "confident” in the RCMP’s policing model. But residents of Surrey weren’t as confident.  In October, they voted in a council where all but one member ran on a pledge to replace the RCMP with a local police force.

Council passed a motion on Nov. 5, its first day in office, to take "all appropriate steps to immediately create a Surrey Police Department."

A spokesperson for the RCMP says the force is a "neutral party'" in this process, and the vote "is not a critique of the service provided by the RCMP to the citizens of Surrey."

Observers have said this could be the first domino to fall in a region where the RCMP has over a dozen detachments. But they also say it's an opportunity for the Mounties to change how they approach local policing.

Why Surrey is done with the RCMP

Jack Hundial, a former RCMP officer who spent 25 years with the force, was one of numerous speakers at the June rally, which was organized by anti-gang violence group Wake Up Surrey.

"It was a sort of boiling point in our community," Hundial told Global News, describing a city where kids are coming home with unexplained cash and multiple cell phones, clear signs that they've joined gangs.

READ MORE: $220M and counting — the cost of the RCMP's 'culture of dysfunction'

Hundial now sits on city council. He ran on, and ultimately voted on, a proposal to end the RCMP’s contract and to move ahead with independent policing. Hundial admitted that passing the motion without fully costing it out was "putting the cart before the horse," but given there are many steps before a local police force could take over, he believes it could also give the Mounties a chance to reflect on how they approach their work in the city.

"Let's look at increasing our presence in our schools, be more interactive. Let's look at having more community input into what we do with our policing resources."

The RCMP's accountability to Surrey is set out in a Municipal Police Unit Agreement — it dictates that Surrey's officer in charge reports directly to the mayor, though he also delivers reports to council. That contrasts with a municipal police board, civilian bodies that include the mayor, one person from council and up to seven people appointed by the province.

Surrey is a very diverse city, for instance, those of South Asian descent make up over 32 per cent of the total population.

Having a city-based police force, said Sukhi Sandhu, an organizer with Wake Up Surrey, would be more effective at tackling a gang crisis in particular.

It's about the policing model, it's about understanding our demographics and diverse population," he told Global News.

"One of the benefits of having a municipal police force such as Delta or Vancouver is you're more ingrained in the community, you're more in touch with your neighbourhoods," he said. "You have more of a presence, and to make changes to your business model, it doesn't need approval from Ottawa."

The RCMP maintains that their detachment in Surrey is a local police force: it's had a presence since 1951. The average time an officer spends there is seven years and 38 per cent of them also live in Surrey.

While the RCMP are headquartered in Ottawa, in Surrey, they said their "primary accountability" is to the city. The Surrey RCMP's officer in charge reports to the mayor and also updates the city's Public Safety Committee on matters such as policing priorities, crime statistics and trends, the Mounties told Global News.

Local policing has been shown to foster partnerships that have helped the police identify suspected gang members within communities. When it comes to gangs, the Surrey RCMP has a long-term strategy focused on promoting "positive choices for kids at a young age and to provide accessible support and guidance to parents."

However, critics charge that the RCMP have been slow to adopt gang-targeting measures that exist in other communities.

An example is a "Bar Watch" program aimed at keeping gang members out of bars and restaurants.

Kash Heed, a former B.C. solicitor general and ex-police chief in West Vancouver, said local RCMP detachments have to go through "layers of structure" to approve creative policing methods like this.

Under Bar Watch, bars and restaurants can scan patrons' IDs to see whether they're "inadmissible persons" — flagged for bad behaviour or involvement in violent criminal activity.

Heed worked on such a program when he was with the Vancouver police about 12 years ago. The aim was to "go after gang bangers that were frequenting specific areas" such as bars and restaurants, he said. "We had shootings, we had murders, that was all part of saying that, you're not going to be allowed to come into these particular areas because of your behaviour."

The program was later introduced to other local police forces in Metro Vancouver, who implemented it "right away," Heed said. The RCMP, however, criticized the program "for years," he said.

Then, in December 2018, the Surrey RCMP announced their own version of Bar Watch, called the 'Inadmissible Patrons Program.'

"You want to talk about a structure in the RCMP where, for example, you can't do things in a timely fashion... there's the best example you can get," Heed said.

In a statement, the Surrey RCMP countered that it took five months, "not 12 years," to launch their program — those months capture the time that passed since the city released a report endorsing the idea.

Moving toward community-based policing would run counter to trends seen within the national police force over the past two decades — and globally. While some in Surrey are pushing for a community-based approach, the RCMP nationally has been focusing on an intelligence-led approach since 2000.

The Richmond example

Surrey isn't the first Metro Vancouver community to look at replacing the RCMP with an independent police force — nor is it alone across Canada.

In B.C., the City of Richmond examined what it would take to move to a local police department four years ago for similar reasons to Surrey — concern that decisions were being made in Ottawa without consideration for the local context or the cultural makeup of the city. If Richmond were to move ahead with its own police force and maintain existing service levels, then the operating cost for policing would jump from anywhere between $2 to $4 million per year, and would require a property tax hike of up to two per cent.

Nevertheless, Richmond opted to keep the Mounties, citing a low crime rate and strong service from the Mounties locally.

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum has estimated the cost of moving to a local police force at $120 million. What hasn't been estimated is how much operational costs will change, or how that might affect tax bills.

Other communities still policed by the RCMP are reviewing their law enforcement, however. That includes the City of Red Deer, which has recorded Canada's highest crime levels in communities with over 100,000 people in the past six consecutive years. The city has called for an outside review of its policing, as crime continues to be a top concern for residents there.

Red Deer operates under a hybrid model, in which the RCMP provide primary enforcement, though there's also a "very strong municipal component that supports that," Mayor Tara Veer said in December.

Crime levels pop up as a concern every time crime figures are published, said Red Deer Coun. Buck Buchanan, a former Mountie himself.

READ MORE: RCMP civilian advisory board to tackle bullying, harassment — is it enough?

There's almost a "50/50 split" when it comes to feelings about the RCMP in Red Deer, he told Global News — some happy with the service, others not.

"I don't think, as an ex-member, that we as the force have done large municipal policing well," Buchanan said. "I think that we have tried to take a smaller style of policing, or rural policing, and tried to implement it into a bigger place."

Buchanan said Surrey's decision has sent a "shockwave through the policing world," because it's the force's biggest detachment. And that "everybody's looking" at Surrey to see what the future of RCMP’s involvement in local policing of cities will be.

Shirley Heafey agrees.

The former chair and CEO of the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP from 1996 to 2006, an agency that has since morphed into the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, Heafey said the RCMP is a "costly burden" on taxpayers, with a culture that "cannot be fixed."

She said communities policed by the Mounties are "not getting the service they should be getting due in large part to sub-par training of members and they must answer to Ottawa headquarters first."

a group of people standing in front of a building © Provided by Corus Media Holdings, Inc. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits with RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, the officer in charge of the Surrey RCMP, to his left, during a roundtable discussion on gangs and gun control, in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 4, 2018.

"They are not trained to deal with people in a mental health crisis and in most communities they are faced with this issue daily," Heafey told Global News.

This, she said, was apparent in the 2007 Tasering death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Dziekanski, a Polish man, was seen shouting and throwing items at the airport before RCMP arrived and shocked him with a Taser. He died minutes after the deployment.

In that incident, officers who deployed Tasers "approached the incident as though they were responding to a barroom brawl and failed to shift gears when they realized that they were dealing with an obviously distraught traveller," the inquiry report into the Tasering said.

"Their response in these situations is too-often a 'gun' and not because they want to shoot but mostly they don't know what else to do," Heafey said. "Their de-escalation training is non-existent."

The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment about the force's approach to de-escalation.

Far from criticizing Surrey’s mayor for overlooking costs, Heafey praised Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, calling him a "progressive and courageous politician."

"I fully support his courage to have made such a decision because the citizens of Surrey will be much better served by their own police service who are accountable to only one master and who are trained to serve the particular needs and problems in that community," she said.

The Mounties, she added, should stick to federal policing alone.

'Domino effect'

If Surrey ditches the Mounties, a "domino effect" could result within Metro Vancouver, said Heed. If other communities see Surrey's transition as successful, "I think you'll see others looking at that as a way to reform their police."

While Heed doesn't see Surrey's move away from the Mounties fostering a "domino effect" far beyond Metro Vancouver, but John Deukmedjian does.

The criminologist at the University of Windsor said other large municipalities "could and some probably will follow."

He wasn't surprised to see the movement starting in Western Canada.

"I think where there is dissatisfaction with Ottawa, which has been traditionally seen as deaf to local concerns particularly by Alberta and B.C., then you'll get municipalities moving away from the RCMP."

But he questions how much an independent force would change policing in Surrey. Sure, there'd be a police board, but many officers are likely to be hired from the ranks of the current force — "just a change in uniform." He added, however, that replacing the RCMP there is an "earthquake in Ottawa — and that's a good thing because the RCMP will be redefining itself, wary of losing more municipalities."

Ultimately, Heed said, the Mounties have an opportunity, even in the face of such a loss. The RCMP, he said, have to "redefine themselves" as a federal force.

"I think it can be viewed as very positive to them, and if they were wise, they would really consider it that way.”

With files from Janet Brown, Emily Mertz and Herman Chau

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