B.C. asks court to dismiss Surrey case challenging switch to Surrey Police from RCMP

The City of Surrey says the amendments to the Police Act “interfere with Surrey voters’ expressed preference” and limits their freedom of expression

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The B.C. government has asked the province’s Supreme Court to throw out Surrey’s case seeking to keep the RCMP.

In a response to the city petition, filed in B.C. Supreme Court, the province brands the city’s request for a review of the directive that the Surrey Police Service take over from the RCMP as an unnecessary exercise.

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The province also calls the city’s request for a judicial review “moot” because the government has passed a law that requires the city to allow the transition to the new municipal force from the Mounties.

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Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke and her city council two months ago filed the petition in court, asking for a judicial review of the provincial order, and later amended that petition, saying a switch to a local force violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This judicial review should be dismissed because Section 7 of the Police Amendment Act 2023 has rendered it moot,” the province says, referring to a law passed in the recently completed fall session of the legislature. That section “now imposes a statuary obligation on the city to provide policing by means of a municipal police department,” the filing states.

And the filing said the city’s argument that the Police Amendment Act is unconstitutional — because Locke ran and won the last election on a retain-the-RCMP platform — would fail on two grounds.

The city says the amendments to the Police Act “interfere with Surrey voters’ expressed preference” and limits their freedom of expression, the province’s response says. But the future of policing wasn’t the only ballot issue and it can’t be assumed Locke supporters were also RCMP supporters, it said.

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Even if most Locke supporters were also RCMP supporters, the province filing says, there are clearly supporters of the municipal force in Surrey.

“The expression of the majority’s perspective,” the filing says,” is not entitled to any greater protection (under the Charter) than the expression of other perspectives.”

The constitutional challenge also lacks the “robust evidentiary record” required to succeed, it said.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth last month suspended the entire Surrey Police Board and appointed an administrator, former Abbotsford police chief Mike Serr, to continue the transition to the municipal force.

The unprecedented move was made possible by the recent amendments to the Police Act, which gives the province the power to appoint an administrator to carry out the police transition and remove members of the Surrey Police Board, including the chair.

The Police Act changes also state that Surrey’s police force of record will be the new Surrey Police Service, not the Surrey RCMP. While the RCMP is still the police force of jurisdiction in Surrey, the Surrey Police Service is already staffed by about 400 officers and staff.

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Farnworth estimates the transition, led by Serr and former B.C. Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald, who was hired in July to oversee the transition, will take another 12 to 18 months to complete.

In July, Farnworth ordered Surrey to continue with the transition, despite protests from Locke that the municipal force would cost taxpayers $464 million over 10 years. The province has offered $150 million to help with the transition but Locke has said it isn’t enough.

In its reply, the province notes that Farnworth has an “overarching responsibility to ensure that an ‘adequate and effective level of policing and law enforcement is maintained through British Columbia.’

“In reaching his decision, the minister did not compare the efficacy of the SPS and RCMP,” the province’s court filing says. “The minister’s decision was grounded in the unique facts of this unprecedented situation. The minister found that the city’s proposed U-turn could create a policing void in Surrey and have spillover consequences through British Columbia.”

It added that the RCMP already has about 1,500 vacancies in B.C. and Surrey seemed OK with the idea that restaffing the RCMP in that city would come at the expense of filling those positions.

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The province also rejects Surrey’s argument that B.C.’s Community Charter law means the province can only force the city to stick with the Surrey Police Service if the province agrees to pay any additional costs.

The province argues that the Police Act — which requires municipalities to pay “the expenses necessary to generally maintain law and order — also comes into play. Also, the province notes, almost any decision by the Public Safety Minister under the Police Act could increase costs of policing for a municipality.

“The city’s theory would have the far-reaching consequence that the minister cannot make the decisions he considers necessary to maintain adequate and effective policing, unless the province will pay for any increased costs. This is plainly not what the legislature intended.”

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