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Already Over-Policed: Against Policing and Crime Panic Politics in Surrey Featured

Already Over-Policed: Against Policing and Crime Panic Politics in Surrey

Jeff Shantz

Surrey is gripped by a crime panic, one that sees all public debate and discussion framed by calls for more police in the city. This crime panic is produced by and reinforces a fear politics that is promoted by law and order politicians, businesses that want public space to serve primarily business interests and, of course, by police themselves (and their promoters) as they seek even more funding and resources.

The recent municipal election in Surrey did nothing to tone down this raging crime panic. In fact the election only served to ratchet up fears as politicians, from mainstream coalitions to would-be progressives, tried to out-do each other in calls for more police, more funding for police, and more extensive policing. The only debate was over whether the city would continue to over-fund an already too pricey RCMP or to waste even more public money on a new municipal force.

The victorious Safe Surrey Coalition and their mayoral retread Doug McCallum have upped the stakes in Surrey by serving notice at their very first council meeting after being sworn in that they will end the RCMP contract (a good thing) and replace the RCMP with a new municipal force (a bad thing).

Over-Policed in Surrey: Layer Upon Layer of Policing

Despite the crime panic driven calls for more and more expansive policing powers in Surrey and the law and order agendas of various political groupings, the fact remains that Surrey is already over-policed. Even more, policing in Surrey is a model of layered and integrated surveillance, regulation, and control. This layered policing (of police forces and functions extending through streets, schools, malls, workplaces, sports) is a Surrey model that police are actively taking to other towns and cities in British Columbia.

In Surrey there are 835 formal RCMP officers. The city spends upwards of 30 percent of its budget on formal police functions to the tune of $151 million. In addition to the formal, full-paid RCMP officers, the RCMP also deploy auxiliary officers and networks of volunteers, including students in co-op work placements and practicum assignments. This is free labor, provided by public universities that should know, and do, better. It frees up regular RCMP officers from things like traffic control to do other “harder” policing tasks like hassling homeless people or scaring youth.

Beyond the RCMP are city bylaw enforcement officers. These are city workers who have targeted homeless people for harassment as on 135A Street, the Strip. They have also targeted poor residents, as in the trailer parks along King George Boulevard, for crime panic staples like alleged drug use or sex work. Bylaw and RCMP actions against poor residents have led to evictions of trailer parks, their closure, and sale. Thus increasing homelessness in Surrey and removing some of the few remaining sources of lower cost housing in the city. This has nothing to do with serving and protecting (except perhaps for gentrifying developers) and actually decreases public safety for people who have now lost their homes.

In addition to these city paid examples are the business funded police. These include so-called street ambassadors, paid by and serving Business Improvement Associations/Areas (BIAs) and private security for businesses. Despite having no jurisdiction or authority they often target visibly poor people on the streets for harassment and intimidation, forcing them to leave areas without cause. The Surrey Board of Trade (SBT) website actually provides information to businesses on how to “move homeless people along” and urges businesses to take aggressive stands against homeless people. The BIAs and the SBT have privileged access to council and public safety meetings.

In addition to the more obvious policing operations there are also the  “community” groups that pose as alternatives to policing but which are actually deeply connected to police. These include the police linked and oriented Yo Bro, Yo Girl, which pose as a community sports and leadership initiative but are geared toward recruitment for forces, and the Surrey Crime Prevention Society. The latter recruits youth to do policing work on the promise of community service and resume building. Crime Prevention Society members openly direct their attention toward low level, relatively harmless, activities, such as small drug use or trade and graffiti. This leads to criminalization of people for minor activities and brings them into the criminal justice system. Now they are “known to police” or face a criminal record for virtually nothing of consequence.

Surrey has worked recently to integrate police even further into social service agencies and activities. The SMART Program (Surrey Mobilization and Resiliency Table) brings together police and corrections with housing, health care, income assistance, education and other services. It allows the police to track people throughout a range of access to social needs. The SMART Program meets each week. They aim for 24 to 48 hour response to intervene on people in their purview.

We can also mention the integration of policing within our schools. Police liaison officers and so-called “zero tolerance” policies frame youthful activity through a crime panic lens as budding gang behavior, and mobilize stigmatizing control responses. Students are removed from their home schools, dispersed across the district, isolated, and highly surveilled, either by police or school authorities who report to police or by both. These penalized youth may struggle to finish school, take longer to finish, or drop out completely, separated as they are from home, friends, family. But the police will record that at least they did not join a gang—with no evidence that they ever would have anyway. 

Some Costs

Surrey already spends far too much money and resources on police. And this is so even as crime rates are both falling and lower than the promoters of crime panic would have it. The current RCMP detachment has a 2018 budget of $151 million, which is topped up by the federal government by another ten percent (for an amount over $15 million). That ten percent would be lost to the city and made up by local residents through taxes. While Vancouver residents now pay $422 per capita each year for police, Surrey residents pay $272, which is already too much.

None of this even yet speaks to the staggeringly large costs associated with the transition from the RCMP to a municipal force, which Safe Surrey and Doug McCallum have promised. Bruce Hayne, former Surrey First member and candidate for mayor with Integrity Surrey in 2018, has estimated the transition cost to be between $80-120 million. That is wasted money that would be better spent on just about any other more needed city service. Even Surrey First mayoral candidate Tom Gill’s lowball figures put the transition costs at outrageous amounts of between $30-50 million.

Behind the Panic: Realities of Crime in Surrey

The much-discussed increase in crime in Surrey that politicians like to point to at every chance is, in fact, a myth. Politicians, media, and the Board of Trade insist that crime in Surrey is spiralling out of control—that is not the reality.

In 2017, Surrey recorded 12 homicides (Vancouver had 19). That number is 20 percent lower than the ten-year average of 15. In 2017, violent crime on the whole was down by 11 percent. Assault generally was down by four percent. There were three homicides in Quarter One (Q1) of 2018. That is down 25 percent from Q1 of 2017. The violent crime numbers are largely unchanged. In 2017 there were 59 shootings in Surrey, in 2016 there were 61, and in 2015 there were 88.

The Maclean’s magazine report on “dangerous cities” uses the Statistics Canada Crime Severity Index (CSI), which accounts for both volume and seriousness of crime. In 2017, Surrey did not place in the top 30 most dangerous cities in Canada, ranking at 32nd place. Surrey 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 some examples. Accounting for only violent crime (leaving out non-violent crimes), Surrey was listed even lower, at 44th place. Rates for homicide in Surrey were about the Canadian average. Rates for sexual assault were well below the Canadian average.

Maclean’s released its 2019 listing of most dangerous places in Canada (based on 2018 numbers) on November 5, the very day that McCallum and Safe Surrey took office. Offering further evidence against the claims of the panic purveyors who call for more policing, Surrey has now fallen to 47th place, behind Belleville, Ontario, Brandon, Manitoba, Truro, Nova Scotia, and Courtenay. Surrey, in fact, showed a substantial drop in the CSI and, against the “crime is growing out of control in Surrey” rhetoric, the city has shown a change of -9.84, among the larger drops in Canada. The Violent Crime Severity Index has Surrey dropping again to 63rd place.  

Youth crime is an ongoing and central narrative of the crime panic in Surrey. This too has been greatly overstated. According to Maclean’s, in 2016 Youth Criminal Justice Act offenses were 9.72 per 100,000, well below the Canadian average of 16.74. There were 50 actual incidents. Now, with 37 Youth Criminal Justice Act offenses, the Youth Criminal Justice Act offenses rate for Surrey is down to 7.14, again well below the Canadian average.

Conclusion

Fear is being promoted by politicians and businesses for their own ends, out of proportion to the reality of crime in Surrey. People do have reasons to be afraid about aspects of urban life -- alienation, isolation, economic insecurity, political exclusion, etc. But police will not address or resolve the causes of fear or crime and will not stop the social forces that lead to crime as a manifestation.

We need to keep in mind that calls for increased spending on police occur in a climate of austerity, spending cuts to social services, and demands for “belt tightening” for working class residents. If there is no money, or too little money, for schools, community centres, and youth services, then why is there always more funding for cops? Even would-be progressive groups like Proudly Surrey have covetously eyed the city’s surplus—for a new municipal force, for more spending on cops.  

Divesting from police and investing in people will only come about through our collective organizing against expanding police power. We can’t rely on the state to make it happen; we need to build a grassroots campaign that agitates and mobilizes for the worlds we want. For more information about getting involved in Surrey, see: https://www.instagram.com/againstdisplacement/ and contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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