Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth will soon have another policing transition on his hands – albeit a significantly different issue than what British Columbians have seen play out in Surrey.
In April, the Langley Township voted to move ahead with no longer sharing a RCMP force with the neighbouring Langley City. The two Lower Mainland communities have shared a force since the mid-1950s.
While the township isn’t considering a municipal force, Mayor Eric Woodward said in an announcement in May that it’s about investing in public safety, noting that the township and city’s funding for more officers don’t align.
That’s something that Farnworth said repeatedly when announcing the province’s recommendation that Surrey continue on with it’s policing transition.
“Everyone needs to be safe in our community, regardless of where they live in B.C. As solicitor general, it’s my duty to make sure that the decision on the transition ensures public safety, not just for the people of Surrey, but for everyone in British Columbia”
It’s left many wondering if it’s time for B.C. to make the move to a provincial police force – and at least one policing and public safety researcher thinks the latest decision by government is a missed opportunity to do just that.
SFU criminology professor Robert Gordon, and a former police officer himself, has been following Surrey’s nearly five-year policing transition. The restoration of provincial police service in B.C. would do “very well in settling some of these issues,” he told Black Press Media in a phone interview.
He added at least three regional police services should also be created: in the Metro Vancouver, south Vancouver Island and the Okanagan.
Following Langley Township’s decision, Farnworth was asked if now is the time to be starting the conversation toward regionalization.
“I know it’s very much a topic of discussion,” he said, noting there’s a “significant amount” of work and consultation involved with local governments, whether it was on the lower Island or Metro Vancouver.
The discussion stems from the all-party Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, which released a 96-page report that included 11 recommendations to “transform policing and community safety.” It added that B.C.’s patchwork of RCMP and municipal police forces should transition to a new B.C. provincial police service, amalgamating police services on a regional basis.
The first Police Act reforms are set to be tabled in the fall.
Gordon points to Australia’s policing model, which has a federal policing body and then state police services.
“In Australia, it’s a much cleaner, simpler model. And it works.”
Canada, he said, is “dealing with an icon” and a “colonial hangover.”
RCMP should be disbanded, or reduced down to a tourist attraction, and have a federal force that solely focuses on organized crime and border integrity, he explained.
Gordon called the Police Act report an excellent blueprint on what B.C. could be doing to further public safety and policing, but he thinks Farnworth just wanted to focus on settling the Surrey issue and to not worry about anything else.
“We’ve got people tripping over each other here. And it’s not clear what they’re trying to do other than avoid political fallout.”
While Farnworth said it was “one of the most difficult decisions” he’s ever had to make, the recommendation to stick with SPS wasn’t binding.
But it did come with a financial incentive.
The province is offering to help the city with transition costs. In a 500-page report, it estimates it could cost $30 million more each year of the transition, and Farnworth said if the transition takes up to five years that could be about $150 million from the province.
The city can – and mayor Brenda Locke is hoping to – stop the transition and revert back to the Surrey RCMP. However, the province has set strict conditions that the city must meet in order to stop the transition and retain the RCMP, which include not taking RCMP officers from other communities to fill Surrey RCMP’s ranks again.
The city would also have to pay about $72 million in severance pay to SPS officers.
What about the 11 other already-existing city police forces?
B.C. has 11 municipal police departments: Abbotsford, Central Saanich, Delta, Nelson, New Westminster, Oak Bay, Port Moody, Saanich, Vancouver, Victoria/Esquimalt and West Vancouver. There is also the Stl’atl’mx Tribal Police near Lillooet.
The Police Act reform committee recommends a new provincial police service but give communities an opportunity to choose from a municipal police force – like Surrey – or contract the provincial police service. The recommendation aligns with the current model in B.C., with the only difference being that a provincial service replace the federal RCMP.
Gordon said big municipalities could use contracts with a provincial service, but he doesn’t recommend making that that an option.
“Efficiencies can be achieved by having fewer boundaries between police services.”
A “scope of practice” would need to be sorted out for any future provincial force, Gordon said.
“What exactly is it that lies within the domain of police service? And what does not?”
While responding to emergency calls falls within that scope, dropping the word policing and instead focusing on the term “public safety” is the first step. Policing “suggests a body is parachuting into an area and going to regulate the population,” he said.
“That takes a sting out of the context of police and policing when you’re talking instead – and in a progressive way – about services that ensure public safety in all its various forms.”
B.C. not signaling a provincial police force at this time
Asked during a news conference in April if he thinks the province’s recommendation to move to SPS and away from RCMP in Surrey could pave the way for a province force in B.C., Farnworth said the focus of the decision was Surrey.
“I fully expect that the RCMP are going to be policing large areas of this province for a considerable amount of time to come.”
Farnworth’s comments come despite him continually repeating and pointing to 1,500 RCMP vacancies across the province as part of the decision for the SPS.
“The RCMP have significant recruiting challenges right now and with roughly 1,500 vacancies across British Columbia, we cannot afford to make it worse.”
However, the Commanding Officer of ‘E’ Division, Dwayne McDonald, said in a subsequent news conference that the 1,500 figure isn’t entirely accurate – 1,000 of those vacancies are members on leave, while the remaining 518 are “hard” vacancies that “historically have been unfunded, that we have not had the finances to fill.”
There have also been struggles to recruit.
“We are a national police organization that experienced significant downturn during COVID,” explained McDonald, noting that while Depot didn’t close it had to “slow down.”
Last November, Premier David Eby promised $230 million over the next three years in police funding for RCMP vacancies in rural detachments and regional units, as well as to hire more officers for specialized units such as major crime, the sexual exploitation of children unit and money laundering.
McDonald said the funding will help to hire between 250 and 270 officers, but part of the vacancy issue can be traced back to recruitment. He said RCMP experienced a “significant downturn” at the RCMP’s training centre Depot during COVID.
Gordon said he was surprised when he heard the province was going to pump money into the RCMP operating in rural areas to deal with a variety of shortages, and because of that, he doesn’t know if the switch to SPS will help fill vacancies.
“I’m not sure the answer, because I don’t have the information that government has at its fingertips. So I’m not quite sure what they anticipate will happen.”
– With files from The Canadian Press and Matthew Claxton, the Langley Advance-Times