Should Surrey keep the RCMP or create a municipal police force? Neither.

The Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT), a business lobby group with a history of pushing for the criminalization of poor people and expansion of police resources, is concerned about Mayor McCallum’s move to a new, municipal police force. The Board of Trade has spent years nurturing a relationship with the RCMP that is favorable to their business interests. On January 29th the SBOT held a panel, “Dialogue: RCMP or municipal police in Surrey?” in order to ensure their business interests are protected regardless of the uniforms worn by police in Surrey.

The event got off to a fitting start when management at the gentrifying, luxury Civic Hotel called RCMP to remove me and fellow Anti-Police Power Surrey member Eva Ureta from the entrance to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s new Civic Plaza campus. They did not like us leafleting and talking with people. This is the face of the cop-corporate university: a faculty member and an alumna of a supposedly public university being threatened with removal from our own campus by police taking direction from a global business chain (Marriott). We held our ground in the face of police intimidation and continued leafleting.

The pro-police lineup of the panel, three former high-up cops and the Chair of Kwantlen University’s Criminology Department, kept the conversation confined within a framework of the “RCMP or municipal police force” debate that left no room to question the disproportionate use of police funding and resources in Surrey. It was not a panel designed to discuss or promote alternative uses of social funds and community resources or to look at education, health care, or harm reduction in relation to public safety. Neither was it a panel that would examine the ongoing role of police in maintaining structures of inequality, oppression, exploitation, and social harm.

Bob Rolls, former Deputy Chief Constable of the Vancouver Police Department argued for replacing the RCMP with a Surrey police force because the RCMP is governed thousands of miles away in Ottawa and to improve service delivery, staffing, and budget transparency. Rolls was certain that costs of a transition to a municipal force in Surrey could soar but was not overly concerned about that aspect (a theme that other presenters would reinforce—cost is no matter when it comes to police who are used to getting whatever they ask for).

The next speaker, disgraced former-MLA Kash Heed, also tried to downplay the costs associated with a transition to a new force. He claimed that crime has been increasing for several years in a row, when it has actually been declining.

Mike Larsen, a co-chair of the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, agreed with the officers that this is an interesting opportunity to see where “we” want to go with policing—but did not identify who “we” are, a relevant matter given the privileged police-government-business makeup of the event’s audience. Larsen wanted to focus on accountability and said we cannot have accountability without an accountable and transparent process. Larsen said he wants to see a plan with more people at the table, including those targeted by police. To his credit this was the only time during the event that this was raised as an issue at all or that victims of policing were even acknowledged.

The last speaker, former Surrey RCMP’s top cop Fraser MacRae, argued for keeping the RCMP. He laid out a number of increasing costs with the transition to a municipal force. For example, that the city is not currently liable for civil actions against the RCMP as it would be under a municipal force. And in his estimation there will be a capital infrastructure cost of $80 million for expanded policing in Surrey, under either force. Expanding policing, under either an RCMP or Municipal force, was the underlying assumption of this SBOT gathering.

The question period was dominated by former and current politicians. These included former councillor and mayoral candidate Bruce Hayne (who lost to Doug MacCallum); Dave Woods (former City Councillor and RCMP District Commander); and Dave Hayer (former MLA).

The 22nd annual Surrey Board of Trade Police Officer of the Year gala recognized Constable Aaron Labrum for turning the Surrey Strip (135a St) into what homeless residents described as an outdoor concentration camp, or, in the Orwellian words of the Board, “a safety zone for the vulnerable.” Image credit: SBOT

Despite speakers admitting there has been no study or evidence showing that police ensure public safety in Surrey, they all still called for more cops. And they said there was a need for more cops regardless of which force they were part of. They were willing to ignore the evidence and need for research and default to what amounts to an ideological appeal for more cops. This is done on the basis of underlying dominant assumptions and, given the business character of the crowd, class interests.

During the question and answer period Fraser MacCrae made a stigmatizing and disparaging remark about how Surrey Centre has gotten better since he was Assistant Commissioner because there used to be street level sex workers—and now they’re all gone. This sort of demonizing comment shows a complete disregard for sex worker members of our community and their public safety. This statement from an Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP in Surrey to a business audience shows the reality of policing, the harm it does to precarious and marginalized members of our community, and why police do not keep us safe.

Surrey is in the grips of a crime panic, one that is being stoked and manipulated by police, politicians of various stripes, and local businesses to increase police presence and spending in the city. This panic played a large part in the last municipal election (as it did in the previous one) and contributed to the election of Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition. Safe Surrey made a strong campaign pitch to move from the RCMP, the current city police force, to a new municipal force, and that process has been initiated with Safe Surrey now in power. This move has been contentious and widely debated.

At the end of the day those gathered at this event know that police, whatever their uniform, will be deployed against exploited and oppressed members of our communities (like sex workers, homeless people, and racialized and Indigenous youth) to protect their business and property values. This reciprocal connection was made clear by Heed’s statement that the Business Improvement Areas (BIA) “stakeholder groups” are crucial to “police delivery.” For example, the Newton BIA alone has a Newton Safety Unit, a Newton Community Response Unit, and a Newton Chronic Social Action Team.

Discussions of policing in Surrey need to move beyond these limited frameworks that privilege repressive force and direct public resources to policing and move toward real community supports. The answer to the question of whether we need the RCMP or a municipal police force is: neither. We should redirect money and resources for police into community resources for education, health, housing, and community care.

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