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Les Leyne: Surrey policing debacle will cost us all

If the NDP government’s attempt to chart a route out of this bungle by enticing the city to go with a municipal force goes as planned, provincial taxpayers will cover some ongoing costs.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth is urging Surrey to carry on with plans for a municipal police force, saying the province will pick up the tab for the extra cost. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Officials stressed at a briefing Friday that the City of Surrey’s policing debacle — where it tried to replace the RCMP with a municipal force, then flip-flopped midway through and is now trying to revert back to the RCMP — was unprecedented.

It’s also historic in the sense that no local government has ever screwed up the provision of an essential service so badly that it now has province-wide­ ­implications no matter what h­appens next.

(That sobbing you hear in the background is from people who despair about how disjointed and unbalanced Greater ­Victoria policing is. Advocates for a regional force now realize that Surrey has probably poisoned the idea of making any ­policing changes for a generation or more.)

B.C. taxpayers are on the hook one way or the other no matter what happens, now that the ­province has weighed in with a concept that Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke started trashing two hours after it was launched.

If the NDP government’s attempt to chart a route out of this bungle by enticing the city to go with a municipal force goes as planned, ­provincial ­taxpayers will cover some ­ongoing costs.

That’s despite repeated ­promises from Farnworth that would not happen. If Surrey rejects the option and opts for the RCMP, no provincial help is available, short-staffed ­detachments across B.C. could be ­cannibalized and ­communities will suffer.

It’s amazing that Public Safety Minister Mike ­Farnworth couched the provincial ­solutions as “recommendations.” It means the city council still has ­discretion to continue ­blundering on. The only firm directive Friday was that provincial watchdogs are entering the fray as overseers.

Four years ago, Surrey ­committed to disengaging from the RCMP and creating its own police force. The process was underway when a new council was elected last fall and opted to revert back to the RCMP. (It’s ludicrously called the “transition reversal.”)

Farnworth is now urging the city to flip-flop the flip-flop and carry on with the ­municipal force. It would cost about $30 million a year more, but the NDP is now willing to pick up the tab.

It’s a completely undeserved annual grant that will create a long line of mayors demanding the same treatment. Why we have to pay them to clean up their own mess relates to the number of Surrey seats held by the NDP (7).

The concept of a “point of no return” weighed heavily during the Site C hydroelectric dam argument, when the NDP gained power and ­concluded they had to continue the mega-project, even though they opposed it.

The Surrey Police Service looks to be at the same point.

The blame for the mess doesn’t rest entirely with Surrey.

Farnworth cautiously approved Surrey’s original plan to create a municipal force in 2019. After the die was cast, the government said “all parties involved acknowledge the complex scale of a transition this size and are committed to co-operation and collaboration.”

So much for that.

On Friday, his ministry enraged Locke by releasing a heavily blacked-out 500-page report that shreds her city’s approach and cites numerous downsides in the rest of B.C. Not only that, officials didn’t give it to her until she asked for it.

Farnworth said there are 1,500 B.C. vacancies in the RCMP right now. “We cannot afford to make it worse.”

The director of police ­services report “makes it clear that backtracking to the RCMP risks reducing police presence in other regions.”

Farnworth said it was ­“critically important” that ­Surrey officials read it carefully. But Locke said it was a ­“half-baked” document and rejected the premise.

There was an apt analogy offered during a background briefing. Surrey is in the deep dark woods now. The ­sprawling municipality is policed by a mish-mash of officers from both forces, under RCMP leadership.

B.C. is offering a path out of the woods — revert back and carry on with the new force, with an ongoing helping hand from taxpayers. It has a few obstacles, but they can be ­managed.

The other path is to carry on with the course reversal and go back to using the RCMP. It’s got “cliffs, rivers and needs lots of bridges” to get through. And it could drag a lot of other c­ommunities into the argument.

Farnworth expressed hope “we can finally close this ­chapter of confusion and ­uncertainty.”

But it looks like an entire new sequel is in the works on those same themes.

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