As a resident of Surrey, British Columbia, and criminologist who has studied the policing transition here, I have viewed the debates over policing changes in Moncton with great interest. The recently released Moncton report, and media coverage of it, has focused largely on costs, which are certainly a significant concern when it comes to a transition, as we have experienced in Surrey, where hundreds of millions have already been spent and future costs have still not been released publicly. But financial costs are not the only, or even primary, issue of concern. Lost in much of the Surrey debates has been how we best ensure community safety and well-being—and these go well beyond policing.
Moncton, and other jurisdictions, certainly can take lessons from the policing transition in Surrey and its quick descent into a fiasco. I can attest that the lessons are many—even if successive Surrey councils failed to learn them.
The first is that the process must be transparent and fully and openly involve residents throughout—from initial discussions to wherever the path leads. This never happened in Surrey, and we still know few of the details even as a decision has come down. Many residents called for a referendum on policing from the start. Those calls, which continued during the process, were never met.
Secondly, all conflicts of interest and connections with any of the police forces in question must be openly revealed, and politicians with such connections should not be voting. This also, shockingly, did not happen in Surrey. Last year, the city’s ethics commissioner ruled one councillor, a former RCMP officer, contravened Surrey’s code of conduct when he voted to end the transition from the RCMP to the Surrey Police Service (SPS) while his son is employed by the Surrey RCMP and his daughter is assigned to the RCMP from the city.
Probably the most important lesson, one with long term impacts on community health and wellness, is that cities should not look at community safety strictly through a policing lens. Essential infrastructures and services, from community centres and youth programming to mental health care and shelter, should not be sacrificed to policing. This is precisely what happened in Surrey, where community projects, were either suspended, delayed, or cancelled.
Projects halted or delayed to cover the transition included an Indigenous gathering place, an ice rink complex, two community centres and libraries, land acquisition for a performing arts space, as well as a child-care centre. This most certainly did not enhance public safety. These community costs, losses really, have received too little attention in the police transition debates.
The report estimates transition costs as $73.5 million over 15 years. At the same time it includes over $41 million in so-called contingency and adjustment costs. And there’s the rub — there will be adjustments and they will be upward. As Moncton city councillor Bryan Butler commented: “These are numbers that, if everything fell apart and we had to put two police forces together for five years, these are the numbers that it’s going to cost us.”
This pretty much describes what has happened in Surrey. I would caution residents of Moncton to regard the estimated numbers with skepticism and expect that they will actually increase. With the transition going off the rails in Surrey, costs have kept growing and the provincial government had to throw in an extra $150 million last year to push the move from RCMP to Surrey Police Service forward.
Costs are not the only issue, of course. The problems with the RCMP are well documented and as a criminologist I recognize that there are significant reasons for many to seek a change from the RCMP. But does a transition address those problems—problems, including misogyny, racism, and violence that afflict other police forces? In Surrey, most of the leadership of the SPS was drawn from the RCMP, the very force the city was supposed to be replacing, as did many officers.
These debates can be productive, but only if they take a wider view of public safety, health, and wellbeing, and are not confined to a choice between police forces. Residents of Moncton need to have a serious discussion about how public resources are best deployed to meet community needs. How do we effectively address social conditions — housing costs, poverty, youth unemployment, toxic drug supplies, racism — that seriously impact well-being.
This did not happen in Surrey. Instead, the policing question became a morass of hostility, with politicians, and some residents, picking sides between the RCMP or the SPS, in the manner of fans of a sports team. This pushed other considerations to the margins and led politicians, at all levels, to underestimate how social resources that contribute to public safety are negatively impacted by a further expenditure of public resources into policing (with new uniforms).
And this highlights the real underlying issue—public health, safety, and well-being do not come from policing. In fact, policing serves to undermine them. Through racial and class profiling that make Indigenous, Black, and poor people less safe, more precarious. By diverting resources away from community services and infrastructures—mental health care, shelter, harm reduction, youth programs—that do build community security. Even worse, through criminalization policing brings additional danger, as in the policing of harm reduction and shelter services.
Regardless of which force a city goes with, policing aways asks for more for itself. Shortly after the Moncton police report was released, a new report argued that a $57-million police station still under construction in Moncton will be too small within 20 years even if the region keeps the RCMP. Before it is even built the community is being prepped for a multimillion-dollar expansion.
The enormous costs involved make it even more essential that all residents think about how the money could be best spent on the range of resources that make communities healthy and safe. All while noting that much criminological research shows that there is no correlation between increased spending on police and a reduction of crime.
Jeff Shantz teaches in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.