Infiltrating the imaginations of children at RCMP Surrey’s “Police Week” 2019

On Saturday May 11th, the RCMP held an open house at their Surrey headquarters to launch “police week,” an annual police public relations celebration. Anti-Police Power Surrey (APPS), an activist group focused on ending the police dominance of public spaces and social services in Surrey under the slogan “divest from police and invest in community,” called a picket outside this open house.

There were a half-dozen spirited activists at the APPS table, armed with leaflets and a fold-out education display that explained that policing takes the lion’s share of public resources in Surrey – about 30% of the city budget overall and more than 70% of the “public safety” budget. APPS earnestly engaged the line-up of families who showed up to bring their kids to the police week festivities. For the most part, people responded with curiosity – or at least patience. Although a few men said things like “fuck off.” The picket outside was a good action that succeeded in cracking the total, ubiquitous social presence of police in Surrey by presenting an alternative; even at the threshold of the lion’s den.

The aspect of “police week” that I did not expect was that so many people would show up to take part. When I drove up – at a pretty remote location in south Surrey – I was shocked to find every parking space full. Members of APPS told me that when they arrived, they found a lineup down the block of families waiting to get in. We thought there must have been some exciting exhibits inside, so I went in to see with APPS member Lenee Son.

Lenee and I walked through the door and were stopped by two RCMP officers who called for their superiors. They called on their radios, “we’ve got two of them trying to get in.” Two public relations officers walked in from outside – an older white man and a 30-something constable with visible tattoos who identified himself right away as Gitxsan. They said, “you have the right to be here. We want you to know there’s kids and families here so don’t disrupt them.” I asked the cop who said he’s Gitxsan how much of the work he does is public relations. He said, “up to 100%.” I asked if he does any regular police work and he said, “well, if there’s a car accident I have to respond.”

All the activities at police week were designed so that children would play at being police officers. There was a booth where kids dressed up as a cop in a flack jacket; a police helicopter, Tactical Armoured Vehicle, Zodiak boat, and even a little jail, all to climb around in as child-friendly toys; a “kids watch” table where children were trained to recognize and report crime; a criminal record check table where kids could look up themselves and their friends; a play station to create evidence bags, including a tin that said “Fentanyl” on the side, and; a 911 operator’s station where kids could answer make believe calls. I overheard one volunteer at a booth explain that RCMP provides “so many programs for kids to get involved in, to keep them connected to the police and to their families, otherwise they can go sideways.”

Ivan at the children’s table, with the fentanyl tin (Image: Lenee Son)

Outside, in a contained parking lot area was a festival environment with big speakers playing party music and volunteers wearing “Team RCMP / Celebrating Community” red t-shirts giving away snow cones and hot dogs. We asked two volunteers why they were volunteering for the police. One, a young South Asian man, said, “I have volunteered here for 3 years. Why? I don’t know… I like the community engagement.” It seemed like he did not know why he was volunteering. “Look at how many people are here – it’s the only place like this.” We wanted to ask him more but the volunteer coordinator and the two PR cops came and intercepted us. They asked us to stop talking to volunteers.

The last thing we did was to go to the “Junior Police workshop” where two RCMP officers gave a presentation to a group of about two dozen kids and their parents. In the workshop, as throughout the police week exhibit, the RCMP displayed and glorified killing machines to children.

Constable Peters said, “we have to carry equipment like a firefighter carries their equipment. We also carry fire equipment in case we come across a fire, like if a homeless person starts a small fire to stay warm, we can help them out as well as keep the public safe.” But most police equipment is combat weaponry, he said. “We wear a soft armour vest with an optional heart plate, depending on the risk of the site. We carry a firearm and a taser. It is 40 pounds of gear, up to 60 if we carry all the optional things.” He said new RCMP vehicles are oriented towards this increased gear. The RCMP is now using SUVs instead of cars to transport all the gear. “We also carry assault rifles and shotguns,” he told the crowd of children.  

The kids – as innocent and cute as they were – asked, “is there a space for girls in jail?” The cop said yes. “Why do you carry a pistol?” The cop said he has never fired it, but has it in case he has to protect the public. “Do you have mace?” Yes. “Do you get food in jail?” Yes, three full meals but it’s not very good. “Can jail cameras see peoples’ bare bums on the toilet?” Peters said, yes, it’s not enjoyable for anyone! Don’t go to jail kids!

Public relations cops and a public relations event – RCMP police week was a front of policing that focused on the family. From what I saw inside, it felt like the police are doing well in the “community engagement” battle for police infiltration of the hearts and minds of families – and the imaginations of children.

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