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Baldrey: Changes to Police Act will help avert another Surrey debacle

The BC NDP wants to make sure no one ends up in this mess again. Here's how.
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Never again: One of the key pieces of legislation in an upcoming legislature sitting will be amendments to the B.C. Police Act.

One of the key pieces of legislation to be introduced in the fall legislature sitting (or perhaps the next spring session) will be amendments to the province’s Police Act that will ensure we never repeat the debacle that occurred when Surrey tried to transition to a new police force.

The attempt by Surrey to first move away from the RCMP and towards creating its own municipal police force, and then bizarrely try to move back to the RCMP was at times comedic, error-prone and costly, both in terms of real dollars as well as political capital.

Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth finally put an end to months of wrangling and arguing by using his powers under the Police Act to order Surrey to continue transitioning to the new Surrey Police Services.

It was a welcome move, and it has implications for other jurisdictions as well.  

The RCMP is clearly at a crossroads as an organization, and other municipalities that have the RCMP providing local policing may begin exploring their options for policing in the years ahead.

Farnworth has indicated the changes to the Police Act will better clarify that process — they will, among other things, give the provincial government a closer role in any transition — should it be used in the future.

As well (and this is critical), the changes will not allow any municipality embarking on a transition to its own police force to then “pull a Surrey” and try to reverse course down the road.

Surrey council’s decision to shift back to the RCMP was unprecedented and led to great confusion and uncertainty. To create a brand-new force employing hundreds of people and then attempt to get rid of it by transitioning back to a police force that was experiencing chronic and seemingly unsolvable staffing issues was, to say the very least, ill-advised.

Some will argue that an elected council should be allowed to reconsider its position and change things up, even after a couple of years. But when the impact of that council’s decision reverberates beyond its municipal boundaries and potentially threatens the safety of its residents, the provincial government will step in, as it did in this situation.

Surrey Police Services Chief Const. Norm Lepinski estimates the full transition to his force could take up to three years, but he thinks it will take less than a year for the SPS to exceed the RCMP in terms of front-line staff, and thus become the jurisdictional police force in Surrey.

Police reform is clearly in the air. The Toronto Star recently reported the federal government and senior RCMP officials want to turn the storied force into a “FBI of the North” kind of organization, responsible for things like investigating terrorism, cybercrime and organized crime and no longer involved in daily policing in cities.

It seems inevitable that such a shift will occur in the years ahead (an all-party B.C. legislature committee has recommended moving to a provincial police force, but that seems well down the road).

In any event, as more municipalities eye transitioning to their own police force, those looming Police Act amendments should provide a much-needed road map to ensure they won’t end up in the ditch like Surrey.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC