The Safe Surrey Coalition majority on city council has approved bylaw amendments that will allow the city to indemnify Surrey Police Service officers and employees of the Surrey Police Board, on a five-to-four vote.
The federal government, meantime, indemnifies Surrey’s Mounties while the City of Surrey covers those civilian employees working with the RCMP.
Coun. Linda Annis, of Surrey First, characterized council’s decision to indemnify the SPS as a “financial train wreck just waiting to happen.”
“One vehicular pursuit gone wrong, for example, could cost Surrey taxpayers millions,” Annis warned. “It’s like knowing there’s a huge financial iceberg just ahead but you’re going to sail into it anyway.”
While the federal government indemnifies the Surrey RCMP and pays all the costs, claims, and lawsuits against them, Annis noted, the city’s switch to self-indemnifying “means Surrey taxpayers will be stuck with these costs. For example, any claims that are made for injury, wrongful death, losses of any kind caused by the SPS will be paid by taxpayers. Meanwhile no one seems to be aware of what that estimate could be, which is absolutely ridiculous”
A corporate report authored by general manager of corporate services Rob Costanzo, general manager of finance Kam Grewal and Terry Waterhouse, general manager of Surrey’s transition from the Surrey RCMP to SPS says that as SPS becomes “operationalized” this fall the city will assume responsibility for indemnifying and defending SPS officers and employees against claims for damages arising from the performance of their duties.
The amendments received third-reading approval on Oct. 18.
The city’s indemnification doesn’t extend to board members, who are covered by the provincial government. Under subsection 21(2) of the Police Act, they are “immune from personal liability for actions they take, or fail to take, in the performance of their duties as board members,” the corporate report indicates, but are not free from personal liability if found guilty of dishonesty, gross negligence or malicious or wilful misconduct.
The same goes for SPS officers, who will face personal liability if found guilty of the above and in that circumstance the city might in turn seek indemnification from them related to claims brought against the city.
Annis asked staff if the city will be self-insuring and what the additional cost to Surrey’s insurance policy will be if it is not. She also asked if city staff has done a risk assessment on what costs are currently experienced by the RCMP year-to-year and how many claims “are coming in.
“I just feel this could be a huge cost to the city,” she said. “Under the RCMP model this was all covered through the federal government.”
City manager Vince Lalonde replied that the bylaw amendments are intended to reduce costs. City solicitor Philip Huynh echoed that.
“Indeed it is ultimately intended to reduce costs because under the Police Act the city is liable in any event for claims of damages against Surrey police officers, so it’s in the city’s interest to present a defence against claims and I understand that it will be part of our existing insurance program,” Huynh told council, “which we have coverage, there’s a self-retention in which the city provides a defence up to a certain liability limit and then the insurance takes over, and that will be part of the regular program.”
The lawyer said the city will directly pay claims up to a certain amount. “If there’s exposure beyond a certain amount, then the insurance coverage would be triggered.”
As for the cost, and the number of claims anticipated, Lalonde said staff will have to report back on that. “I think we’ll have to report back on that specific question.”
Coun. Jack Hundial asked if volunteers are covered, or members of the public who are asked to assist police during the course of their duties.
“As a former police officer myself I can tell you that the cost of claims can sometime be extremely high,” Hundial said. He recalled one police force in B.C. had to pay out close $3 million in dog bite claims.
Waterhouse said “this particular indemnification” doesn’t extend to volunteers but employees only. Members of the public, he said, are covered under the Good Samaritan Act.
As far as dog bite claims, Waterhouse noted that the SPS will be “utilizing” integrated teams such as the canine unit, “and those other specialty items will still be dealt with by the integrated teams and we will still be in partnership with the RCMP as it relates as it relates to those types of specialized services, so our claims, those are not the types of claims that we would have to receive at any rate until such time as SPS takes on some of those types of specialized duties.”
Mayor Doug McCallum and councillors Doug Elford, Allison Patton, Mandeep Nagra and Laurie Guerra voted in favour of the bylaw amendments and councillors Steven Pettigrew, Brenda Locke, Hundial and Annis voted against them.
Annis said when it comes to police-related insurance claims, there is “no such thing as a nickel-and-dime case.”
She added that the “complete lack of detail sets off alarms that the cost is very high and once again taxpayers are being kept in the dark on the financial impact of the mayor’s police department and its increasing costs.”