A BC Liberal government would pause the Surrey police transition and hold a referendum for city residents before continuing, the party announced Sunday.
In a statement accusing the NDP of "mismanagement" of the planned transition from the RCMP to a municipal police force, the BC Liberals said they would "put the final choice in the hands of Surrey residents."
"From conversations with thousands of voters in this campaign, it’s clear that Surrey residents want a voice in the path forward," the party's statement reads.
NDP candidate Mike Farnworth, who served as B.C.'s minister of public safety and solicitor general during the legislature that was dissolved to trigger the current election, issued a statement Sunday calling the BC Liberals' proposal "misguided" and "desperate."
“For the worst of reasons, (BC Liberal leader) Andrew Wilkinson has reversed the position taken by his own MLAs, who have stated for months that this is a municipal responsibility," Farnworth said. "Just a few days ago, Wilkinson admitted that he did not know enough about this issue. Today he proved that statement was true.”
Replacing the Surrey RCMP with a municipal department was a signature campaign promise of Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition during the 2018 municipal election.
McCallum offered a criticism of the BC Liberals' campaign promise similar to Farnworth's.
"The Surrey Police Service is a done deal and the BC Liberals are playing politics with the public safety of our residents," said the mayor in a statement Sunday. "I am appalled that the BC Liberal Leader has stooped to this level of desperation in an effort to garner votes. Surrey City Council acted in accordance with the law when we unanimously voted to transition to a municipal police service. For the BC Liberals to interfere in the unanimous decision of an elected city council should be a concern to all municipal governments in our province."
Hamish Telford, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, said Surrey is a key battle ground for the both the NDP and the Liberals because the seats in the city alternate from time to time.
"(The Liberals) need to do something to attract voters in critical areas of the province," Telford said.
He said there does seem to be an appetite from Surrey residents to hold a referendum on the issue.
"I think more skepticism has emerged as we've gone along here, seeing the cost it's going to entail and the possibility of having fewer police officers on the force," he said.
Earlier this year, the provincial government approved the creation of a Surrey Police Board, which will be responsible for overseeing the transition, and the new Surrey Police Service once it's created.
The board held its first meeting in August, and McCallum has said he hopes to have the new police force operational by April 1, 2021.
One of the board's first initiatives is the hiring of a new police chief. A job listing for the position called for applications to close on Aug. 28, but a successful candidate has not yet been announced.
Throughout the police transition process, some Surrey residents and city councillors have voiced concern about how it has been handled as well as opposition to the transition entirely. Those opponents have been especially vocal since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing now is not the appropriate time to switch from Surrey RCMP to the Surrey Police Service.
A poll commissioned in May by the National Police Federation found 83 per cent of Surrey residents thought it was not the right time for a police transition.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Angela Jung