Policing in flux across B.C., as political pledges prove complex to implement

SURREY, B.C. — When Novi Jette left her job with the Vancouver Police Department to join the new Surrey Police Service, she knew she was taking a risk but felt she'd done her homework.

Jette resigned her position after 23 years to assume a new rank in Surrey, where she said she looked forward to building the new police force from the ground up as head of employee services.

However, the future of the force is in question with a new majority on city council promising to halt the replacement of RCMP — and Jette said it could also mean the end of policing for her.

It's an example that suggests political promises to hire and rehire police officers at various police departments may not be as straightforward as a simple staffing shuffle.

"I would be really, extremely disappointed if this got reversed," Jette said.

"For me, going back to Vancouver is not — personally it's not an option," she said. "This would be the end for me if it didn't go through."

Transformations of police departments were a common promise in municipal elections across B.C. last month, as public violence and prolific offences drew calls for stronger law enforcement.

On Vancouver Island, Esquimalt re-elected Mayor Barb Desjardins, after council voted to pull out of a costly agreement with Victoria to share a police department. In Vancouver, voters endorsed Ken Sim after his party, ABC Vancouver, promised to hire 100 new officers for the city. And Surrey's new mayor, Brenda Locke, repeated her commitment to scrap the replacement of RCMP with a municipal force in her inauguration speech Monday.

"The uncertainty of policing in Surrey will come to an end," Locke said.

One of council's first orders of business is putting out a report outlining a plan to keep RCMP in Surrey, which Locke has said will be cheaper than the municipal force. Locke declined requests for an interview, but she told the Vancouver Sun she would like municipal officers to work as Mounties.

On Thursday, however, the Surrey Police Union put out a statement saying 275 of the force's 293 front-line officers had signed a pledge saying they have no intention to join RCMP, should the municipal force cease to exist.

Ian Macdonald, a Surrey Police Service spokesman, said in an interview last month that moving to other municipal forces can also be complicated.

The Vancouver Police Department, for example, told The Canadian Press it's not hiring at rank, only at the constable level. Macdonald said that makes it tough for officers who have achieved higher ranks elsewhere to return.

"You might be returning at a lower wage, a lower rank, and you might be performing functions that were not your area of expertise," Macdonald said.

Training is also a consideration, he said. While the RCMP, for example, has a program to recognize the expertise of police who have worked for at least two years with another department, new recruits who have spent the year at the Justice Institute of B.C. would have to start again at the RCMP's depot division training process, he said.

"The citizens of Surrey just paid a hefty sum, and training officers who were supposed to be hitting the ground in Surrey, and you've just subsidized the training for other municipal departments," Macdonald said.

As of Oct. 15, the police department had 296 officers, with 154 deployed on the front line. Another 28 recruits were in training and 57 civilians were on staff.

The 296 include officers recruited from 26 different police agencies across Canada and 105 are former Mounties.

While cost estimates of keeping the RCMP and cancelling the transition are expected in the staff report yet to be released in Surrey, Macdonald estimated about $93.6 million has been spent on sunk costs like salaries, operating and business expenses, equipment and an IT platform that is not compatible with RCMP's infrastructure.

Severance for existing staff would be about $66.1 million, putting the cost of ending the transition now at $159.7 million, he said.

Dawn Roberts, director of communications for B.C. RCMP, said she couldn't answer specific questions about how many Mounties the detachment has lost since the transition began, how easy it would be to bring staffing back up to par and what it would cost.

Until the city or province move to halt the transition, operations remain at "status quo," she said. However, she added the RCMP remains open to advancing any staffing or hiring processes deemed necessary.

"Significant work has taken police to on-board SPS officers under RCMP command as part of Phase 1 in the transition and that created a number of processes and procedures that could be leveraged," she said.

The experienced policing program, which allows officers with at least two years of experience at other police departments to trade their blue for red serge, would also welcome former Surrey Police Service officers, she said.

"We respect and value the policing contributions of our SPS colleagues and would certainly welcome them to the RCMP," she said.

The RCMP fully respects that decisions about which police force has jurisdiction over Surrey lie with the municipal, provincial and federal governments, she added.

Other municipal forces also have their eye on Surrey's transition.

Sgt. Cindy Vance of the Vancouver Police Department said ABC Vancouver's goal of hiring 100 police officers is an ambitious one given general staffing shortages, but the department believes it's doable with council's support.

"It's not going to be easy, but I certainly am optimistic that we will be able to certainly achieve it," she said.

Although she said Vancouver is only hiring at the constable level, she said the department is seeking officers with experience and has a program to recognize external credentials. Typically, it doesn't involve full retraining but targeted teaching in cases where they use different firearms, for example, she said.

Recruiters at police departments across the region are "on the same team" she said. However, if the Vancouver Police Department is aware of an officer or former officer at another police department interested in coming to Vancouver, recruiters won't hesitate to reach out, she said.

"I'm not about trying to, you know, steal anybody from another agency. But if I think somebody's interested or is looking for the opportunities we offer that other agencies just can't, we're not going to hesitate to let them know that we're hiring," Vance said.

The future of officers in Surrey has yet to be seen, she added. She has spoken with some who are interested in transitioning to Vancouver and others very happy where they are.

"It's a big unknown," she said. "There certainly is more people talking about whether they want to stay there or not. And if Vancouver is the place that they're wanting to come to, or come back to, we are certainly going to talk to them about that."

As the experiences of Jette and other individual officers show, making decisions to change police departments isn't easy.

Jette, who left the Vancouver Police Department as a sergeant and now works as an inspector, said she didn't leave Vancouver because she was unhappy there.

"I had a great career in Vancouver, I absolutely loved working for the VPD, so it was not an easy decision for me to make, but it was a leap of faith," Jette said.

"I was well aware that this opportunity would never come up again, where I'd be able to be a part of building an organization from the ground up in the community that I live in."

Sgt. Harry Grewal relocated his family from Edmonton eight months ago. His extended family in B.C. had urged him for years to move there and the time seemed right after 33 years with the Edmonton Police Service.

Grewal said he's in Surrey to provide a service, not comment or get involved in political decisions. If the police transition is scrapped, he said he will cross the bridge when he gets there.

"That would be a pretty difficult question to deal with. We'd have to sit down with it as a family again," he said.

Kaleigh Paddon, a former Mountie who joined the Surrey Police Service from the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, said she loves her new position as a sergeant but making the decision to leave her former job wasn't easy.

"It's something I don't think any of us took lightly," she said.

She, Jette and Grewal said they're staying focused on their duties as council explores the future of policing in Surrey.

"We worry about what we control and what's in my control right now is caring for our members," Paddon said.

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2022.

The Canadian Press