As Surrey city council inches forward with plans to restore the RCMP as the sole police of jurisdiction, the Surrey Police Union is raising alarm bells about what it describes as regular “short-staffing” among the Mounties.
According to the union, Surrey Police Service (SPS) officers make up between 35 and 50 per cent of frontline general duty deployments across two watches in the city each day. A review of available data further revealed about 25 per cent of RCMP deployments in Surrey did not meet minimum staffing targets, the union said in a Tuesday news release.
“There’s not enough officers on the road to effectively respond to all the calls that are coming in,” Const. Ryan Buhrig, union spokesperson, told Global News.
“Even more concerning, the Operational Control Centre is running at extremely low staff rates — this means that non-emergency 911 calls are going unanswered in Surrey.”
According to the Surrey RCMP, the union’s news release contains “inaccurate” information.
“It is not common practice for police to release exact breakdowns of operational resources on any given shift,” said Asst. Commissioner Brian Edwards, officer in charge of the detachment, in a Tuesday statement.
“What I can say is that the statistics and numbers provided by the SPU are inaccurate, and in my view, are deliberately intended to mislead the public. I call on the Surrey Police Service Executive to expend all efforts to discontinue this harmful rhetoric from the Surrey Police Union.”
The Surrey detachment is funded for 734 positions and is currently exceeding that target, said Edwards. He acknowledged, however, that the Operational Control Centre has been impacted by a shortage of call-takers and dispatchers.
“Our OCC staff are City of Surrey employees, and we are working closely with the City to mitigate the effects of these shortages and we will soon have more hires in place.”
The union’s disputed claims come after a majority of Surrey councillors endorsed a framework to keep the RCMP as the city’s police force and phase out the fledgling SPS.
Buhrig said that endorsement took place Monday night without a conversation about the impact of low RCMP staffing levels on public safety — a topic that ought to be addressed in connection with the controversial transition away from SPS.
Mayor Brenda Locke, who campaigned on a promise to scrap the SPS, said Tuesday she was not concerned by RCMP staffing levels as described by the union.
“They’re trying to create their narrative. They know exactly what’s happening and what was the process for the HR plan between the Surrey Police Service and the RCMP, so no I’m not concerned at all,” she told reporters.
“Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards yesterday was talking very clearly and specifically around the numbers of members, and moving forward, what that would look like. The police, the RCMP are very confident they can get the numbers up to speed where they need to do that.”
Edwards presented the report containing the transition framework to mayor and council on Monday night. According to the report, without the SPS, the RCMP would need 161 new members to maintain a desired staffing contingent of 734.
During his presentation, the officer in charge expressed confidence that the RCMP would be able to recruit SPS members into the fold, and detailed how proceeding with a transition to the SPS would disrupt several RCMP programs already in place, including gang enforcement and mental health outreach.
He also criticized some of the public comments made on the transition, and suggestions that the RCMP is not a “locally accountable” police force.
“Spokespersons have criticized ongoing RCMP programs, said that other programs will be better — programs that don’t exist,” he said Monday. “Multiple inaccurate comments have been made. The list goes on and goes. The intent seems clear — to create concern and fear.”
In his Tuesday statement, he called the union’s release a “prime example” of that.
A joint project team will now oversee the development of a final plan to return to RCMP, to be presented to councillors on Dec. 12.
The team includes senior leadership from the municipality, the Mounties, and two consultants, former senior RCMP officers Tonia Enger and Peter German. Councillors who opposed the framework on Monday night called for a third consultant — one not affiliated with the RCMP or SPS — to be added to the team.
Surrey taxpayers have yet to see a municipal estimate on how much reversing the SPS transition will cost them.
According to the SPS and Surrey Police Board, by the end of December, the “unrecoverable sunk costs” related to the transition are expected to reach $107 million. Terminating the transition by January next year will result in a project investment loss of another $81.5 million, according to a financial backgrounder authored by both.
“If reversing the transition now, it would take the City of Surrey over a decade of annual contract savings realized from the 10 per cent federal subsidy to recover the loss of investment into building SPS to become the police of jurisdiction,” the document states.
Locke said she expects information on the costs to be made public by mid-December.
“We have professional staff that are doing the work for us. It will be far, far greater to continue down this road with the Surrey Police Service than to stop this at this point,” she explained.
“It is obvious that the City of Surrey has absolutely no control about what the Surrey Police Service does, even in terms of some of their budget.”
Meanwhile, the SPS has said it will continue to rollout its human resources plan — including hiring and spending — until directed otherwise by the Surrey Police Board, which reports not to the municipality, but to the provincial government.
Locke said she is meeting with the Surrey Police Board on Wednesday and will be meeting with the solicitor general and premier in the coming weeks to update them on progress with the transition.
–With files from Kamil Karamali