Why one Alberta city’s move away from RCMP is so different from Surrey

Grande Prairie’s move to a municipal police force is not facing same hard political fight as it is in Surrey. Here’s why.

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When Grande Prairie’s new municipal police chief, Dwayne Lakusta, was sworn in last week, Mayor Jackie Clayton called it a momentous day for the city.

The enthusiastic tone of the ceremony — coming on the heels of a decision to create a municipal force to replace the RCMP in the city of 70,000 in northwest Alberta — stands in stark contrast to the bitter dispute underway in a similar transition in Surrey, population 610,000.

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A five-day hearing of the City of Surrey’s petition to overturn a B.C. government decision to force the continued transition to a municipal force in place of the RCMP began Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.

While there has been some opposition to the move to replace the RCMP in Grande Prairie, including a debate over whether residents were properly consulted, the transition to a new 104-member police force has so far been a lot less bumpy than in Surrey. About 30 new municipal officers are expected to be in place this year with a completion date set for 2027.

Clayton says a huge amount of research was done before making the decision in March last year.

“This was not in the political realm, initially, that’s not what triggered it,” Clayton said.

The discussion about police services and the potential need for a change started as far back as 2018 as Grande Prairie had a high national crime severity ranking, she said.

The city government was also concerned about the uncertainty created by the federal government’s consideration about ending the provision of RCMP contract services to municipalities in 2032, she said.

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That came on top of concerns over the RCMP’s ability to recruit and supply enough officers to the city, the RCMP’s inability to retain senior officers in the community and a belief that a municipal force would be more sensitive and responsive to local community needs and be able to make changes more quickly than a force that answers to Ottawa. The city was also eyeing the new RCMP union contract which increased pay more in line with municipal police salaries.

“It’s not that council believes this will be smooth sailing the whole time. We know there will be growing pains, transition pains. But at the end of the day, having local oversight, local input and local solutions for local problems is the goal,” said Clayton.

The city’s hope is that the municipal force will also be more deeply integrated with the city’s other crime and safety services including a mobile outreach program that is focused on mitigating the effects of street-level social disorder, addiction and public intoxication, and connecting people with social and housing services.

Grande Prairie police chief
Grande Prairie Police Chief Dwayne Lukusta, third from left, and Mayor Jackie Clatyon, sixth from left, in front row, at swearing in ceremony for Lakusta on April 19, 2024. Photo by City of Grande Prairie

The city initiated a police services model review in 2021 that resulted in a 110-page report that recommended seriously considering a municipal force. It resulted in the city hiring the accounting and business advisory firm MNP to lead public consultations and produce a transition report, which was delivered in February 2023.

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In March of 2023, the city council voted 8-1 in favour of proceeding with the transition.

Not everyone agreed with the decision.

Chris Thiessen, the only councillor to cast an opposing vote, said costs are hard to project and he’s concerned whether 10 years in the future the city and its citizens will be prepared for being completely responsible for costs, including likely higher technology costs.

With the RCMP, there was at least some certainty, he said.

“I sure hope I am wrong,” said Thiessen.

He said if he has any advice for a community considering a new police force, it would be to create a slow, deliberate process, communicate with the public and provide as much education as possible, and ensure residents understand it could mean replacing the RCMP.

A local group that fights against issues such as racism, homophobia and transphobia, the Peace Country Progressive Alliance, mounted a petition to try to force a referendum on the new police force. The group gathered 4,000 signatures, short of the 6,700 needed.

Dustin Archibald, one of the members of the alliance, said the amount of people who signed the petition shows there were many people who were not consulted.

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Archibald said there are concerns the cost will be greater than estimated and apprehension of how a new force will deal with those most vulnerable, such as people with addictions, people who are not housed, and Indigenous people who historically have not been treated well by police.

“This was just rammed through,” said Archibald. “If you’re going to do this, let’s develop a crime solution rather than defaulting to policing. It means getting into addressing the root causes of crime such as addictions.”

Archibald said his group will take on a watchdog role as the transition continues.

Two months after the city council voted in favour of the new force, a local police commission was created. And in August last year, the commission hired Lakusta, a veteran senior officer with the Edmonton Police force who last served as the executive director of law enforcement and police oversight for Alberta’s Public Safety and Emergency Services Ministry. Since then, several senior officers have been hired and the first two police vehicles have been purchased.

Lakusta declined an interview with Postmedia News and the RCMP also did not respond to questions about the transition.

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Grande Prairie’s reasons for moving to a municipal force are not dissimilar to those cited in a 2019 Surrey police transition report. But that reasoning, in Surrey’s case, has been lost in the political fighting, particularly over the estimated higher costs for a municipal force compared to the RCMP.

It’s a key difference for the Grande Prairie transition, as the MNP consultants calculated that once in place, the municipal force’s cost would be “similar” to the RCMP. The consultant’s report, however, does not do a side-by-side cost comparison. Figures in the report show the new force is expected to cost $33.8 million in 2028, compared to the RCMP’s budgeted $31.5 million in 2022. The report notes there could be some administrative savings and more control over costs with a municipal force.

In Surrey, the province has estimated a municipal force will cost $30 million a year more than the RCMP, or about a 15 per cent increase.

In Grande Prairie, the transition cost has been calculated at $19 million, of which the Alberta government is putting up $9.7 million.

The B.C. government offered the City of Surrey up to $250 million to assist in its transition — a larger portion of the budget relative to that in Grande Prairie — but it was recently rejected by the city’s mayor, Brenda Locke, and her majority council.

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Similar to Surrey’s transition in B.C., the Grande Prairie transition to a municipal force is taking place against the backdrop of a conversation on the future of the RCMP.

Alberta, like B.C., has discussed moving to a provincial police force to replace the RCMP, although those deliberations appear to be on hold. And recently Alberta put up $27 million to expand the province’s sheriff services to take on a bigger role in combating crime, including in downtown Edmonton and Calgary and fugitive apprehension.

Doug King, a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says Grande Prairie appears to be making a change to a municipal force for the right reasons. The force could be more nimble in responding to changes than the RCMP, for instance.

King remains skeptical, however, that it will not be more costly than the RCMP.

He points out that pay for the new force in Grande Prairie will have to be competitive with larger forces such as in Edmonton in order to attract officers. But Clayton, Grande Prairie’s mayor, said a recent call for 20 new recruits attracted more than 100 applications.

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And King says whether the new force will be able to solve the perpetual issue of filling all the positions in the new force remains an open question as there are understaffing problems all across police forces in Canada.

“For me, the real reason ultimately is going to be civilian oversight. That’s the bottom line. It will not be any cheaper,” said King.

Similar to its opposition in Surrey, the National Police Federation, the union that represents RCMP officers, has criticized Grande Prairie’s decision to create a new, independent force.

Following the council vote in favour of a new force last year, National Police Federation president Brian Sauvé said the transition had been widely promoted and presented through rose-coloured glasses with little to no true consideration of overall transition costs, recruitment and retention, training, or technology and equipment.

“The majority council decision to transition away from the Grande Prairie RCMP has been entirely politically motivated, when politics have no place in policing decisions,” said Sauvé.

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