Critics ask if RCMP is worth municipal funds

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      Ex-cop Doug MacKay-Dunn recalls one incident that shows how B.C. municipalities being policed through contracts with the RCMP may not be getting their money’s worth.

      After he was elected councillor in the District of North Vancouver in 1999, the former Vancouver police sergeant toured the local RCMP detachment. He was impressed upon seeing a squad car marked Arson Investigation.

      MacKay-Dunn asked an RCMP inspector how many officers were staffing the vehicle. The officer said two: a corporal and a constable. Next question: where are they? Answer: they’ve been promoted and are no longer with the detachment. Who’s working the car now? No one.

      For jurisdictions that have their own independent police force, like Vancouver and 11 other B.C. municipalities, finding out if they’re being shortchanged by their local cops is straightforward: all they have to do is send a team of auditors to conduct an internal review.

      “You know what?” MacKay-Dunn said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “We can’t do that with the RCMP.”

      According to MacKay-Dunn, the accountability of the RCMP to the 58 municipalities across the province where they perform local police functions is a major issue that should be addressed in the ongoing renegotiation of the force’s provincial and municipal contracts in B.C. The current 20-year contracts expire in 2012, and new agreements covering another 20 years are on the negotiating table.

      Depending on their population, municipalities get a federal subsidy of 10 to 30 percent of their policing costs. In areas with populations of less than 5,000 residents, the provincial government shoulders 70 percent of the bill and Ottawa 30 percent of it.

      Because of these subsidies, which are meant to cover the cost of federal police work undertaken by the RCMP, there is a perception that local governments are getting police services on the cheap, according to MacKay-Dunn.

      “We’ve been told many times that where a non–RCMP police force would cost you a dollar, the RCMP is going to cost you 90 cents,” he said. “That sounds great when you say it quickly. But here’s the problem: if I can’t go in and look at the books, how do I know that I’m not being overcharged and, in fact, it’s now $1.10, not 90 cents that I’m paying?”

      In his 2008 book Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP, former Globe and Mail national editor Paul Palango noted that one of the “many myths” about the Mounties is that they’re an affordable police force.

      He wrote that it costs $156,000 per year to put an RCMP officer on the street, compared to $105,000 for a municipal police officer, and even less in smaller towns.

      Palango pointed out that the RCMP is good at selling its services, and that the federal subsidy seems too good to turn down. “However,” he wrote, “after the RCMP wins a contract with a sizzling offer, communities get less steak than they bargained for.”

      A paper released by the Union of B.C. Municipalities last fall indicated that some local governments suspect that they’re “subsidizing the delivery of police services at both the federal and provincial level”.

      However, the document, Police Services in British Columbia: Affordability and Accountability, noted that it’s “difficult to assess the extent to which this may be taking place”.

      In 2006, former Vancouver police chief Bob Stewart released a discussion paper titled “The Buck Stops Nowhere: British Columbia—2007 and Beyond”. In the paper, Stewart noted that it’s common knowledge that municipalities don’t get the number of Mounties specified in their contracts.

      In a phone interview, Stewart pointed out that the B.C. government has been very quiet about how the contract negotiations are proceeding. According to him, the public should at least be informed of the details that are being discussed by the two parties at the table.

      “To tie us for another 20 years and just ignore the issues that have been identified, I think that would be a pretty sad state of affairs,” Stewart told the Straight.

      According to City of Langley mayor Peter Fassbender, there aren’t a lot of contentious issues on the table. Fassbender is a member of a committee struck by the UBCM to advise the provincial negotiating team, which is led by Kevin Begg, an ex-Mountie who is now assistant deputy minister and director of police services with the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

      Premier Gordon Campbell attended an RCMP “celebration of a request for proposals” in April 2009 after the federal government confirmed it was looking for a developer for the force’s proposed new Surrey headquarters. On May 7 of this year, federal, provincial, and municipal politicians, including Fassbender, attended the $996-million project’s groundbreaking ceremony.

      The Langley mayor acknowledged that there are several questions about issues such as how costs are shared by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Declining to go into detail, Fassbender told the Straight, “I’m sure we’re going to find a solution that will address all the issues.”

      Fassbender said he expects to see proposed resolutions to these concerns by the end of the summer.

      Many municipalities across Metro Vancouver contract their police services from the RCMP, including Surrey, Burnaby, Richmond, the District of North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, the City of Langley, and the District of Langley.

      In an interview with the Straight last month, SFU professor and school of criminology director Robert Gordon suggested that the new contracts being negotiated by the province should have an opt-out clause.

      This would mean that B.C. would have the flexibility to terminate the RCMP contracts if it were to decide to reestablish a provincial police force. “If we wanted to create our own police service, then we would need to get the RCMP out of the province,” he said.

      Gordon also noted that other provinces policed by the RCMP are also renegotiating their contracts, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if these jurisdictions insisted on putting in an opt-out clause.