Peter German: Surrey, brace for impact: A municipal force will cost more than the RCMP

Surrey RCMP officers. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

Surrey council’s avowed intention to create a municipal police force would end over 70 years of RCMP service to the community and terminate a 20-year contract signed in 2012. Since 1935, the federal government has allowed its federal force to police municipalities, with over 150 contracts currently in place. The reasons are obvious — a quality, cost-effective police service. The RCMP did not ask to become Surrey’s municipal force. Residents overwhelmingly voted to replace the Surrey municipal police in a 1950 plebiscite.

So why does Surrey now wish to end its contract with the RCMP? The reasons given float between a safer city, greater accountability, and that Surrey is now a big city. It is extremely unusual for a municipality to unilaterally end its contract with the RCMP, other than when communities amalgamate. Once gone, never to return is the federal mantra, as it underwrites significant contract policing costs. Below are the real issues.

The quality of policing will improve: Wrong! The quality of police officers on the street in the Lower Mainland is virtually the same whether they are municipal or RCMP. This is the result of common standards. At the end of the day, it boils down to having sufficient street resources and specialized units to deliver the level of policing required by a community. This is not the function of one force or another.

Surrey council will govern the new force: Wrong! Municipalities do not appoint police boards — the province does. The municipality has two seats on a police board. RCMP detachments typically report to a council-appointed safety committee. Surrey recently changed this reporting structure, with the RCMP commander reporting only to the mayor.

A municipal force will be cost-neutral: Wrong! Make no mistake, a municipal force will cost more than the RCMP. Nobody knows how much more, for one simple reason: The RCMP has not been engaged in the discussion. Consider the following:

1. In 2018, the per-capita cost of policing in Surrey was $284, compared to $458 in Vancouver.

2. Surrey detachment has 843 officers. Any force policing Surrey needs more resources. To suggest that the new force can perform its duties with the same number, or fewer officers is poppycock.

3. The RCMP patrol model is one person per car. Many municipal forces are contractually required to employ a percentage of two-person cars.

4. RCMP members maintain most of the investigations they are assigned during a shift, rather than referring them to detective units.

5. The salary differential between the RCMP and municipal police is between 15 and 20 per cent.

6. A new force will offer a salary commensurate with the highest municipal police salary.

7. Ten per cent of Surrey’s policing costs are covered by the federal government.

8. Transition costs include tens of millions of dollars for clothing, vehicles, and infrastructure.

9. Surrey will be required to deal with all lawsuits, such as police car accidents.

10. The cost of recruiting 800-plus employees and training them is huge.

It is reasonable to project that Surrey will require a force of at least 1,200 police officers to cover off existing needs, and the new patrol model. Combine that with a 15 to 20 per cent increase in salaries, the loss of a 10 per cent subsidy, a huge capital investment, and transition costs, and the increased cost to Surrey taxpayers will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Recruiting a new police force will not be a problem: Wrong! Where do you find 800 or 1,200 police officers? It is estimated that up to 150 municipal police officers from other Lower Mainland forces may bridge over to be closer to home or for promotions. RCMP pension portability remains an issue, despite Surrey bravely suggesting it is not. Nobody has even surveyed how many RCMP members are interested in joining, but the RCMP attrition rate is quite low. Where then will the bulk of the new force be recruited? Overseas? Other provinces? Will hiring requirements be reduced? And how will this provide a better level of policing?

Training a new force will not be a problem: Wrong! The Police Academy at the Justice Institute of B.C. is woefully under-resourced, with an aging and outdated infrastructure that struggles to keep up with the current attrition rate of municipal forces. It has no present ability to expand and provide the numbers of recruits required for Surrey or to backfill other departments. Despite a brave assertion that there is a plan, the need to train hundreds of police officers to an acceptable standard will be a huge cost to the province and municipalities.

The new force will magically replace the RCMP: Wrong! Any transition would rely heavily on a continued RCMP presence, meaning two police chiefs, multiple communication systems, different cultures, policies, and command structures. A one-year timeframe is pie in the sky. Recruiting, training, and new infrastructure will take much longer.

Surrey will be safer: Wrong! Naysayers skate around the fact that Surrey’s violent crime severity index in 2018 was at a 10-year low. The local detachment has done everything asked of it by the city to deal with the illegal drug market, domestic abuse complaints, gang violence and routine calls for service. During a transition, organized crime may well have a field day. Transferring institutional knowledge, intelligence and sources is not an easy task for police.

A municipal force creates a greater sense of identity: Wrong! The RCMP has responded to millions of calls for service over the past 70 years. Hundreds of RCMP officers make their homes in Surrey. They are volunteers — hockey, baseball, soccer, and football coaches. Many have been injured on the job and five made the ultimate sacrifice. It is our national police force, with which all Canadians identify.

The current, integrated nature of policing in the Lower Mainland has withstood the test of time, commissions of inquiry, and challenging cases. The citizens of Surrey should do what they want, but with their eyes wide open. Trading the yellow stripe of Canada’s national police for the blue stripe of a municipal force must not be a knee-jerk decision taken with blinders on. Taxpayers will endure the consequences for a generation.

Peter German, a lawyer and consultant, was the RCMP’s Lower Mainland commander (2007-11) and deputy commissioner for western and northern Canada (2011-12). He is a former member of the Transit Police Board. His graduate work on the RCMP contracts in 1990 was the first academic study of the area.