Being “from the ’60s,” Wally Oppal is “not unfamiliar” with demonstrations and marches – it was the decade of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, after all.
But the former B.C. Supreme Court judge and attorney general – and chair of the committee appointed to oversee the City of Surrey’s police-transition plan – said what he witnessed some 60 years ago is nothing compared to the unrest playing out south of the border since the death last month of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 while being forcibly restrained by a police officer – who has since been charged with second degree murder – and the circumstances surrounding his death have inspired protests and marches, both internationally and close to home.
Those events in the U.S. decades ago “pale in comparison to what’s taking place now,” Oppal told members of the Probus Club of White Rock/South Surrey Wednesday, adding he’s both surprised and not surprised.
“I’m not surprised that finally in the U.S. people have risen up against the injustices that have taken place, particularly by police… without any kind of accountability,” Oppal said.
What is surprising, he said, has been the nature of the reaction worldwide – and it will be challenging for those in power to ignore it.
“Legislators that make the laws are going to have a difficult time staying mute.”
The apparent immunity to accountability in the U.S. justice system – which Oppal said was highlighted once more on Friday night, by an incident in Buffalo, NY, in which a 75-year-old man suffered serious injuries when he was pushed to the ground by police, who initially claimed he had tripped – is why so many protests are taking place, Oppal said.
While Canada’s system isn’t perfect either, “there’s a world of difference” between it and its neighbours, he noted, citing everything from training required here to become a police officer, to the independent civilian oversight that was put in place in 1998. Oppal conducted the commission of inquiry that led to that oversight, following public outrage over a series of investigations by police into police-involved shooting deaths, all of which ended in police exonerating themselves.
“In America, they have very little civilian oversight,” he said.
The officer who caused the death of Floyd, he added, had 17 prior complaints of unreasonable force and would never be allowed near a police station in Canada.
“Anyone with that kind of a track record shouldn’t even be a police officer,” Oppal said.
Oppal said policing in Canada needs to be “closer to the community,” including more visibility by way of increased foot patrols and more dealings with vulnerable people.
At the same time, the public’s expectations of police are “unreasonably high,” he said, and more needs to be done to address the root causes of crime.
Asked to comment on Surrey’s plan to transition to a municipal police force, Oppal said from the perspective of Surrey being the largest city in Canada without its own police force, “they’re probably doing the right thing.”
Oppal said he also understands why many people want the RCMP to remain – thousands have signed a petition circulated by an ongoing campaign to “Keep the RCMP in Surrey,” he noted – “but I also understand that Surrey wants to move on and have a police force where they will be in a better governing position.”
Surrey council voted unanimously at its inaugural meeting in November 2018 to end its contract with the RCMP and set up its own police force, and last August, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor Gen. Mike Farnworth gave the city the go-ahead to pursue the plan. In February, the approval to set up the municipal force was announced.
Oppal said he would like to see Surrey put its own brand on its police force, including having a decentralized system that meets with different groups including the vulnerable, and “get away from the paramilitary model.”
Asked if the transition was inevitable, Oppal said it wasn’t, however, the province “is really hard-pressed to say no.”
“If you want my opinion, I think it’s going to go ahead, but then again, I could be wrong,” he said. “I don’t see the province overruling a duly qualified city council that made a legitimate ask.”