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Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum is seen last year posing with a Surrey Police car outside city hall.

Ian Bailey/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

One of the fastest-growing cities in Canada is a step closer to having its own police force as Surrey, B.C., moves ahead with a controversial plan to replace the local RCMP detachment.

At their inaugural meeting on Thursday, nine members of the new Surrey Police Board approved a motion to create the Surrey Police Service. It’s expected to launch the day after the city’s contract with the Mounties ends on March 31.

Board chairman and Mayor Doug McCallum, who was elected on the campaign promise to create the municipal force, said it represents more than a change in uniform.

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“It is about local autonomy. It is about local accountability and it is about representing the diverse communities that we serve.”

The B.C. government approved the switch in February and appointed the board in June to oversee the new force in Surrey, a city the mayor said is growing by about 1,500 new residents each month.

The board is tasked with hiring a chief constable, setting policies, overseeing the service’s budget and assuming responsibility for complaints.

Mr. McCallum said members will work to “recruit the top police leaders in the country to work with us to build an innovative, modern and pro-active police service.”

But the president of the National Police Federation, which acts as the bargaining agent for more than 20,000 RCMP and reservists, said recruitment and training could pose challenges.

Brian Sauve said police recruiting across Canada has been increasingly difficult in the last five years.

“Everyone is chasing after the dwindling pool of applicants who want to join policing as a career,” he said.

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“I think it will be a challenge to create and find 800 or so people who want to be police officers in the Lower Mainland of B.C. in a short period of time.”

Even if there are enough recruits, Mr. Sauve said the Justice Institute of B.C. does not have the capacity to train them without an infusion of money from the province.

Finding the right candidates for chief of the new police service may also be difficult, he said.

“It’s going to need a builder’s mindset, not necessarily an experienced police chief’s mindset [and it] should be a fairly long process,” he said, noting that Mayor McCallum has said the chief would be hired by fall.

“Executive searches, they take months, if you’re doing it right, and you’re doing it transparently, and if you’re doing it with the input of experts in the field.”

Board member and elected chief of the Semiahmoo First Nation Harley Chappell acknowledged the pool for officers at the executive level is slim. He said the board understands the “dire need” to begin the recruitment process.

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The board believes officers will want to come to Surrey to “be part of something new and something fresh, and to really be able to build a police force from the ground up,” he said.

Mr. McCallum said the first priority is to hire a police chief, adding the process will start next week.

“We’re going to do a very thorough process on hiring,” he said, noting a consulting firm has been hired to help. “We’re going to take time to be sure that we get the right person for the job.”

Mr. McCallum said there has been strong interest in coming to Surrey among police officers throughout B.C., particularly from Metro Vancouver.

The transition has caused rifts in the mayor’s own political party as three members resigned from the Safe Surrey Coalition last year, citing concerns about Mr. McCallum’s approach.

The city held public consultations over five weeks last year and announced shortly after that there was “overwhelming” support for a municipal police force.

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Councillor Brenda Locke later filed a freedom of information request to obtain the full report on the consultations, which showed that hundreds of people who commented online opposed the plan, raising concerns about costs or calling for a referendum.

A 450-page report by former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal concluded the shift to a civic police force would increase the operating budget by 10.9 per cent in 2021, taking into account the loss of federal subsidies and achieving wage parity with the Mounties.

That’s on top of millions of dollars in one-time capital investments Surrey must make in order to set up the new police department.

However, Mr. Oppal’s report said Surrey is an outlier as the only municipality in Canada with more than 300,000 residents that doesn’t have its own police force, which would allow the city to better adapt to the community’s unique needs and growth.

Terry Waterhouse, the general manager for Surrey’s policing transition, told the board on Thursday a transition plan that builds on Mr. Oppal’s report still needs to be developed.

“That integrated transition plan would be the road map which confirms a series of specific milestones and dates and that plan will take into consideration the March 31 deadline, and amendments might be necessary to adjust that,” he said of the April 1, 2021, launch date.

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The next board meeting is set for Sept. 15.

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