Municipal Farce: The politics of crime panics and policing after the Doug McCallum victory in Surrey

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      By Jeff Shantz

      We are caught in the middle of a crime panic in Surrey, one that is promoted by politicians, police, and businesses looking to grow police budgets and presence to protect their own political and economic fortunes.

      This panic framed public discussion throughout the municipal election in Surrey, which, once again, offered little for anyone looking for an alternative to the chorus calling for more, and more extensive, policing. Not even a slight move away from the law-and-order, police-first politics that have dominated discussions of public safety in Surrey.

      Certainly each of the three business-preferred parties, Surrey First, Integrity Now, and the victorious Safe Surrey Coalition led by mayor-elect Doug McCallum, were in agreement over increasing police resources and “boots on the ground”. They only differed over how soon, how fast, and how much to waste public funds on police—and whether they wanted to toss money at the old (RCMP) or the new (a municipal force).

      Even would-be progressive coalitions, like Proudly Surrey, went no further than calling for a municipal force, along with the commitment to raid the city’s surplus of tens of millions to fund it. This put them firmly in line with McCallum—hardly an alternative politics.

      McCallum’s “Job 1"

      Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition took office with their first council meeting on November 5. Their victory will, unless McCallum’s plan is opposed, prove a boon for police budgets in both the short and long term—but not so much for the actual social needs facing our neighborhoods and communities.

      Doug McCallum campaigned on a promise to replace Surrey's RCMP with a municipal police force.

      Since winning the election, McCallum has already stated publicly that replacing the RCMP with a municipal force is “Job 1” and he has confirmed that he will serve notice to the RCMP that the city will end their policing contract right after being sworn in. McCallum claimed early that he had already written the notice, delivered at his first council meeting, and with his Safe Surrey Coalition in control of council, it will, without doubt, be swiftly moved forward. The contract with the RCMP can be cancelled on March 31 of any year as long as two years’ notice is given.

      The RCMP have overseen Surrey since 1951. The force currently consists of 835 regular officers with more in affiliated and support work. Despite McCallum’s boasts, all recognize that replacing the RCMP with a municipal force will not be a simple and straightforward process. This view has been stated by critics like criminologist Rob Gordon and former solicitor general and West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed, as well as current Surrey RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald.

      McCallum responds to critics by suggesting that 60 percent of the current RCMP officers would join a new municipal force in Surrey (which should be a warning to any who hold illusions that a new force will be meaningfully different). A further portion will be taken by current police drawn in from other Lower Mainland forces (another dose of cold reality for those hoping for “change” in a new force). Others will be made up of new recruits.

      A costly proposition: the resource drain of McCallum’s force

      Surrey already wastes far too much money and resources on police. And this in a context in which crime rates are both falling and lower than the current crime panic would have it. The current RCMP detachment has a 2018 budget of $151 million. That is topped up by the federal government by an additional 10 percent (more than $15 million). That 10 percent would, of course, be lost to the city and have to be made up by local residents through taxes. Vancouver residents now pay $422 per capita each year for police while Surrey residents pay (an already too high) $272.

      There is another factor that proponents of a new municipal force fail to talk about: the arrival of a police association in Surrey. Brian Sauve of the National Police Federation suggests that a new force would quickly form an association and bargain for parity with other local forces on wages and benefits and hours and conditions, etcetera. Municipal cops earn about 15 percent more than RCMP members. RCMP officers are prohibited from having a police association. In addition to pay and benefits increases (which would be bargained upward regularly) changes to working conditions would also see two officers to a patrol car rather than the one for RCMP patrols. So there would be upwards pressures on force numbers through bargaining, in addition to the usual pushes for expansion around service requirements.

      This does not even address other issues regarding police associations: their reactionary political role. Police associations notoriously put forward the most authoritarian and regressive positions on police dominance and law-and-order politics in the centres in which they are active. This includes not only regular calls for more officers but involves pushing back against even the slightest forms of accountability or oversight. For police associations, there is no such thing as too much force, and killer cops are always justified in their actions, no matter how brutal or murderous. They will ensure that officers facing some repercussions for their actions will eat up further public resources through vigorous defence in the courts and in the realm of public relations and media campaigns. Furthermore associations continually call for more and more aggressive equipment for officers, from more powerful weapons to armoured vehicles.

      Surrey has experienced a reduction in crime during the past year.

      Still others—politicians like Liberal MLA Mike Morris (a former RCMP officer)—are using McCallum’s talk of a municipal force to argue for even more of a budget increase for the RCMP. Of course, this is where these plans are inevitably headed. No matter what force is in place, it will drain enormously greater resources from the city.

      None of this even yet speaks to the stunningly high costs associated with the transition from one force to another. Bruce Hayne, former Surrey First member and candidate for mayor with Integrity Surrey in 2018, estimated the transition cost to be between $80 million and $120 million—lost money that would be better spent on any number of more needed city services. Even Surrey First mayoral candidate Tom Gill’s lowball figures put the transition costs at between $30 million and $50 million.

      Facing reality: crime in Surrey is not what the panic says it is

      In thinking about the post-election push to expand policing in Surrey, it is worth keeping in mind that the supposed increase in crime that politicians like to refer to at every opportunity is a myth. We are given a mistaken impression by politicians, media, and the board of trade that crime in Surrey is rocketing out of control. That is not the reality.
      In 2017, Surrey recorded 12 homicides (Vancouver had 19). That is 20-percent lower than the 10-year average of 15. For 2017, violent crime on the whole was down 11 percent. Assault, generally, was down by four percent. There were three homicides in the first quarter (Q1) of 2018. That’s down 25 percent for Q1 of 2017. Violent-crime numbers are virtually unchanged. In terms of shootings on the whole in Surrey, in 2017 there were 59 shootings; in 2016, there were 61; and in 2015, there were 88.

      A Maclean’s magazine report on “dangerous cities” uses the Statistics Canada crime-severity index (CSIO), which accounts for both volume and seriousness of crime. In 2017, Surrey did not even place in the top 30 of the most dangerous cities in Canada, landing at 32. It was well behind North Battleford, Saskatchewan (#1, 353), Red Deer, Alberta (#5, 207), Prince George (#11, 154), Kamloops (#23, 128), and Victoria (#30, 119), to name only a few examples. Surrey’s index number was 117. For violent crime (leaving out nonviolent crimes), Surrey was listed even lower, at 44. Rates for homicide in Surrey were about the Canadian average. Rates for sexual assault were well below that average. 

      Maclean’s released its list of the most dangerous places in Canada for 2019 (based on 2018 numbers) on November 5, the same day that McCallum and Safe Surrey took office. Tellingly, and as further evidence against the claims of the panic purveyors and the calls for more policing, Surrey has now fallen to 47th place, behind Belleville, Ontario; Brandon, Manitoba; Truro, Nova Scotia; and Courtenay here in B.C. This is the very year of the panic over “growing” crime in Surrey. Surrey, in fact, showed a substantial drop in the CSI, to 106. More telling for the “crime is spiralling out of control in Surrey” types, the city has shown a change of -9.84, among the larger drops in Canada. And the Violent Crime Severity Index has Surrey in 63rd place.

      Fear of youth is a central feature of the crime panic in Surrey. This, too, has been massively overblown. According to Maclean’s, Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) offences in 2016 were 9.72 per 100,000, well below the Canadian average of 16.74. (There were 50 actual incidents.) With 37 YCJA offenses, the YCJA–offenses rate for Surrey is down to 7.14, well below the Canadian average (still at 16.74).

      A 2018 report finds the homicide rate for Metro Vancouver at a 20-year low, with 1.88 murders per 100,000 people. Violent crimes are also “at historic lows”.
      Statistics Canada showed 87 homicides in B.C. in 2016, down from 97 in 2015 and 89 in 2014.


      Nowhere in the election leadup or since has there been any option to policing for community safety in mainstream venues. That needs to change. We need to look at other resources that are available to us but remain unfunded, underfunded, or untried. The move to a municipal force must be actively opposed as the public-funding drain and extension of police violence it will represent. And the RCMP must be defunded as well. Not either/or—both. Resources need to be put to meeting real human needs of safety and security: housing, child care, elder supports, improved school and community-centre resources (and facilities), health supports, etcetera.

      Free from police surveillance and control.

      Jeff Shantz is a full-time faculty member in the department of criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University on Coast Salish territories (in Metro Vancouver). He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and cofounding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project.