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Norm Lipinski, Surrey Police Service's first chief constable and the current Delta Deputy Police Chief, is photographed outside the Delta Police Department in Delta, British Columbia, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The chief of Surrey’s new police force is looking for officers who are good communicators, who are trained in de-escalating conflict and who have demonstrated resiliency in their own lives.

Norm Lipinski said in an interview last week that a police officer’s job is mostly managing human struggles, not crime, and he wants his officers to have those skills.

“For the Surrey police service, I am looking for guardians, not warriors,” said Chief Lipinski, who comes to this new job after a 30-plus-year career spanning time with Edmonton police, in an RCMP assistant commissioner’s post and most recently serving as deputy police chief in the city of Delta.

“Generally speaking, about 80 per cent of the calls that police officers go to are not crime calls. They could be disturbances, or landlord-tenant problems or something of that nature. It’s people problems.”

Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition promised in the 2018 election to create a new police force more attuned to Surrey’s needs. At the first council meeting after the election, they voted to end the RCMP’s role as the city’s police force. Since then, questions have been raised about the cost and whether the transition is a good idea. But the hiring of Chief Lipinski puts a police executive in the spotlight, and under pressure to do the hiring of veteran officers and raw recruits, and get the new Surrey police force out on the streets of the city southeast of Vancouver.

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said she is skeptical about the prospect of real change associated with the new department.

“The new Surrey Police force will still be rife with the many systemic challenges raised against all policing forces across these lands,” she said in a statement last week.

A municipal force will still face the challenges of ineffective and civilian oversight governance, systemic racism, the illegal practice of street checks, and to end the criminalization of race, gender and poverty.”

Questions have arisen about policing over the summer as the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police prompted protests by Black Lives Matter and calls to defund police forces. Chief Lipinski said the mix of developments has prompted a debate around the issue of public trust of police best addressed by community consultation, transparency and hiring police officers who can live up to the highest standards of serving the public.

Chief Lipinski, 53, said diversity is a “huge, huge” consideration, and he wants officers, both in command and front-line positions, that reflect the diversity of Surrey, where half the population are visible minorities.

He said diversity helps in connecting to the community. “It helps in understanding the community, and my view of policing is like Robert Peel said, ‘The police are the public and the public are the police,’ ” he said, quoting the 19th-century British prime minister, considered the founder of modern British policing.

Chief Lipinski said he will hire deputy chiefs and human resources staff and then recruit so he can have officers out on the job by next April. The officers would work alongside the RCMP who have policed Surrey for decades, but will be replaced by the new department.

“As we spool up, they spool down,” Chief Lipinski said, adding it is too soon to say how many new officers will be initially deployed, partly because it’s unclear how many officers will apply to join the new force.

On another issue, Chief Lipinski said he is worried about a brain drain of officers from other Vancouver-region police departments seeking opportunities in Surrey, so he will be discussing the issue with other police chiefs.

“If there’s a severe mass exodus from one department, that department would have issues with staffing the front line. From a moral perspective, from a public safety perspective, I don’t have that desire to allow that to occur,” he said.

“I want to work through this in the best way possible so there is not a severe disruption of the policing ecosystem.”

The transition has been controversial, prompting the resignation of three members of Mr. McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition, who cited concerns about his approach.

Jack Hundial, a former Surrey Mountie, was one of the three. Mr. Hundial said Chief Lipinski is entering into an unprecedented challenge, with no template to provide guidance on how to proceed. “Also, the timeline is very ambitious despite his best attempts or intentions.”

The chief still needs to develop a plan that the community can buy into, Mr. Hundial said. “I think that’s going to be his biggest struggle and challenge.”

Anita Huberman, head of the Surrey Board of Trade, said in a statement that Surrey faces the unfortunate prospect of having two police forces at the same time for an indefinite period, creating unnecessary expense when city funds should be focused on economic recovery and job creation.

Chief Lipinski acknowledged the critics of the police project in Surrey. “I recognize that people have a difference of opinion,” he said, adding he is developing an outreach plan. “I’d like to chat with those people.”

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