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Province directs Surrey, B.C., to stay with local police force despite city's wishes

VICTORIA — It was, in British Columbia Solicitor General Mike Farnworth's own estimation, an "extraordinary" use of his powers.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announces that the provincial government is directing the City of Surrey to proceed with the transition to a municipal police force during a news conference in the press theatre at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VICTORIA — It was, in British Columbia Solicitor General Mike Farnworth's own estimation, an "extraordinary" use of his powers.

But invoking the Police Act to direct the City of Surrey to move ahead with a transition to a municipal police force — against the wishes of its mayor and council — was necessary to ensure the safety of the Metro Vancouver city, he said.

Farnworth hopes his decision is the last word in a dispute that has its origins in 2018, when former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum was elected on a promise to replace the RCMP with a municipal force, the Surrey Police Service. 

But McCallum would lose his job last year to Mayor Brenda Locke, who promised to reverse course and stick with the RCMP.

Farnworth said Wednesday that the safety of Surrey residents and the rest of the province is "non-negotiable" and reverting to the RCMP would be moving "backwards," despite the wishes of Locke and her majority on council.

"I know this is an extraordinary use of my powers under the Police Act, and I didn't make this decision lightly," Farnworth said at a news conference.

"As the minister for public safety and solicitor general, keeping people safe is not only my top priority, but it is my legal duty and responsibility."

Farnworth said the Police Act states his responsibility is to ensure an adequate and effective level of policing is maintained throughout B.C. 

"Unfortunately, the city of Surrey has failed to meet the mandatory requirements to go back to the RCMP," he said. "That puts people at risk. It's just not safe to go backwards and it's clear the people in Surrey want this uncertainty over."

A report from Farnworth's ministry said the RCMP faces staffing challenges and is "overstretched."

More officers are retiring or leaving the RCMP than are joining, with 638 new cadets graduating this year and 842 members exiting, said the report. It also said there are currently about 1,500 vacancies across the RCMP in B.C.

Farnworth said he expects this to be "the final decision" in the tempest between Locke and the provincial government over the fate of policing in Surrey.

Locke's election last October came well into the hiring process for the Surrey Police Service, with millions already spent on the switch. 

In April, Farnworth recommended Surrey continue with its transition to the municipal force. The recommendation included an offer of $150 million to help offset the costs of the transition, but only if Surrey decided to stay with the municipal force.

Council rejected the government's recommendation and pledged to return to the RCMP.

Locke said in a statement Wednesday that Farnworth's decision was misguided and based on inaccurate assumptions. 

She said the province was disingenuous when it gave council options on how policing in Surrey would proceed, when the city never had any choice in the matter. 

Locke said Farnworth's interpretation of the Police Act is of concern, noting that municipalities also have the authority under the act to choose the model by which they police their areas. 

She said she'll be meeting with council and city staff to "explore our options."

"I will also be asking for a face-to-face meeting with the minister to understand how he intends to compensate the significant tax burden that will be placed on Surrey residents and businesses as a result of his decision to continue with the Surrey Police Service." 

The policing debate had grown fractious between the province and Locke, who accused Farnworth of bullying and misogyny earlier this year. Farnworth meanwhile said the city was playing "games" when it didn't immediately provide details about how it would manage a switch back to the RCMP. 

Farnworth said Wednesday he spoke to Locke about the government's decision.

He said he understands the mayor not being happy. 

But he said he is committed to working with the city, the mayor and council. "Will it be easy? I know, right now, probably not," he added.

He said it was important to end the uncertainty of what he called a "divisive period." 

"We have committed to providing the city of Surrey with $150 million to ensure costs are not passed on to businesses and residents as part of the transition."

He said he will begin consultation on legislation to be tabled this fall to ensure that this type of situation never happens again. 

He said the government appointed Jessica McDonald, a former deputy minister and a former BC Hydro president, to serve as a strategic adviser to assist with the transition process.

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, who wrote a detailed report on how Surrey could transition to an independent police force, was at Farnworth's news conference.

He said the government had no other choice. 

“The RCMP simply could not meet the challenge of the numbers.”

Oppal, a former judge, said he has been providing consulting services to the Surrey Police Service and speaks regularly with Farnworth. 

A statement from the Surrey Police Union, which represents officers on the independent force, said the province's decision brings confidence and stability to officers who have committed their careers to Surrey.

"It is with great relief that we can now put the uncertainty surrounding policing behind us and focus on what really matters: public safety," the statement said. 

"Citizens across Canada want change in policing. Change can be difficult, but change is necessary." 

Surrey Police Service Chief Norm Lipinski said the government's decision was made in the best interest of public safety in Surrey and across the province.

“There is no doubt that this is great news for our 400 employees and their families, but I also believe it is great news for Surrey residents who will now get to see the many benefits of a local police service, tailored to their community," he said. “This final decision by the provincial government marks the end of years of uncertainty for residents and all policing staff in Surrey. It is now time to move ahead." 

The RCMP focus throughout the transition process was to ensure public safety is not compromised, Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald said in a statement.

McDonald, who is the B.C. RCMP commanding officer, said the stable delivery of policing and retention of its members will be at the forefront of its planning. 

"We are committed to being part of the planning and working with all stakeholders, including the City of Surrey, National Police Federation and Surrey Police Service moving forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023. 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press