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Hail to the chief – an in-depth interview with Surrey Police Service’s first boss

Chief Constable Norm Lipinski will assume his historic new role on Dec. 14
Chief Constable Norm Lipinski, Surrey Police Service. (Submitted photo)

Chief Constable Norm Lipinski, hired on as the first-ever officer in charge of the Surrey Police Service, which is set to replace the Surrey RCMP, starts his first day on the job on Dec. 14. He’ll be the first to admit he has his work cut out for him as the magnitude of this policing transition process is unprecedented in Canada.

Before he gets started, Lipinski chatted with Surrey Now-Leader reporter Tom Zytaruk about the challenges now on his plate, his views on how to set up a police force for the future, and what it’s like to regularly be mistaken for Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon.

Zytaruk: John Horgan during the provincial election described Surrey’s policing transition as a “hornet’s nest.” City council is bitterly divided on it, as is the community. It will be an uphill battle for you, in some circles, to earn people’s trust in the Surrey Police Service. How will you address this?

Lipinski: A couple of things. Number one is that I understand how people feel, this is significant change. And I spent time with the RCMP, as an RCMP officer, and I certainly understand the history in Surrey with the RCMP and I have to tell you that some of the finest men and women that I’ve ever worked with in policing are in the RCMP and so it’s not the people; the decision that was made was because of the bureaucracy and moving forward is in the best interests of Surrey. That decision point was not inclusive of me. I got hired by the board, the board represents the community and of course that decision was made quite some time. Now, my mandate is to continue forward and to make that a reality. I have a vision how to do that, it’s going to take some time to crystallize and what I mean by that is, I will be meeting with the transition team that has been in place for quite some time. I will have to see where they are at and as such then I’ll put a plan together with the board but part of that plan – and I think this is very important – my history has been including not only police service members in planning of the future, but also the community. When I say community I mean not only the citizens but all kinds of stakeholders, for example health, education, etcetera. So we have this sort of plan of moving this towards fruition, it’s going to take a little bit, and it’ll take a lot of dialogue. At the end of the day, I understand how people feel, and the decision has been made, and I won’t get into the legalities of that, that’s for the city and the province and so forth, but I look forward to working with everybody and I realize sometimes this is going to be some pain points as we move forward, but I’d like to be in a position of consulting with all the stakeholders.

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Zytaruk: OK. How long will it be before the Surrey Police Service is operating in full swing and the Surrey RCMP is in the rear-view mirror?

Lipinski: Good question. So first of all when I start on December 14 I have to look at where are the legal documents, as somebody who’s legally trained, I’m well aware at looking at the contract, and when legally does the transition start. We’ve heard through numerous sources that it’s April, etcetera, etcetera. I have yet to confirm that through a legal perspective and then we start the hiring process. Hiring not only includes senior officers but of course those constables on the street that’ll be serving the citizens of Surrey and it’ll be a transition of where the Surrey Police Service spools up and the RCMP spools down. How and when that looks like will take a lot of work with the RCMP and then the starting point for that will also include how many people may apply. Nobody really knows. Everybody talks about all these surveys that have taken place. You know, certainly people will always wait to see who the leadership team is, and perhaps they would look at the contract, meaning remuneration, and make those decisions. So at the end of the day, I do not have a crystal ball how many people apply. But it’s not a matter also of how many people apply, it’s about getting the right person. I’m looking for certain people that are community policing oriented; I’m looking for people that really, in a way, have a service heart. I’ve been in policing for 42 years and I could do other things, but I just like being in a position where I serve a community and so I continue to be in policing and I’m known to have a lot of energy and to get thing done and to have a number of accomplishments and change management projects, so I’m looking for people that on the one side really want to serve the community, on the other side really are good problem solvers.

Zytaruk: Talking about not having a crystal ball as to how many Surrey Mounties might transfer over, and one of the surveys I guess you might have been referencing was the one done by the National Police Federation this summer that indicated only 14 per cent of the Surrey Mounties intend to transfer over to the Surrey Police Service. Are you concerned by that at all?

Lipinski: Here’s a couple of comments I’ll make. There are 7,000 RCMP police officers in this province. There’s about 2,500 municipal police officers in this province. So, you’re looking at a pool of police officers in excess of 9,000 and I don’t know the numbers in Alberta, but of course there’s a lot there. In my view, it’s not only just the Surrey RCMP officers, it’s the entire province and neighbouring provinces and we’ll be looking at that. So as we move forward I think that there’s a certain draw for this. In a way, this is historic, and to be part of something, to build something from the ground up, is appealing of course to me – that’s why I’m here – and doing policing in a certain way, and I think it’ll be appealing to other people that may want to come from other organizations. But also, I will add, in due course, that we will be recruiting right from, I’ll say the universities or colleges, the trades or so forth just like any department does. So we will have that applicant stream coming as well and so I feel good and I feel confident we could so this. The question also is how can you move along during a pandemic and yes, it slows things down, we all know that, but I think we can work through that with the proper precautions. Nonetheless, we move along, and in moving along I have to be in touch not only with the community but also all the stakeholders that are part of this transition, that is Surrey, that is the provincial government, that is the federal government and that is also my colleagues, other chiefs in B.C. and we will move this forward in a progressive manner. And when we get the best people, when we have enough people, then we will, at the end of the day, full transition will take place. I can’t speculate on that right now, it’s way too early to tell. Perhaps I’ll have a better sense of it January, February, March.

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Zytaruk: What will the Surrey Police Services relationship be with RCMP E Division, headquartered in Green Timbers?

Lipinski: I think it will be a very good one. One of my skill-sets has been the fact that I’ve got experience on both sides of the fence, and I’m a relationship builder, so I do know and understand the culture of the RCMP, the processes of the RCMP, and many of the people I worked with four years ago are still there in E Division. So I’ve received emails from them congratulating me, and saying looking forward to working with you. I think it will be a very, very good relationship. Sure, we may disagree on a number of areas but I think we can work things out.”

Zytaruk: Concern has been raised over continuity of cases and investigations during the transition. For example, the Surrey RCMP currently has 56 unsolved homicides under investigation since 1967. How will you ensure no ongoing criminal investigations fall through the cracks? On the face of it, this appears to be a Herculean task.

Lipinski: Very good point, to which I gave a lot of thought to as I went through the process for selection. I think it’s very important to ensure that there is that business continuity in all those criminal cases and as we know, those can be at times extremely complicated. I have to ensure that there isn’t any gap that may be identified. One of the ways to do to that is to quite frankly hire – and hopefully they will be applying – key RCMP members in important positions to oversee that transition. That knowledge of the files, that understand where they are, meaning where they are in the investigative process. I want to ensure that and so I look forward to those applications in that regard because that is extremely important to me and I think I can ensure that there will be no gaps developed. And that is my tentative plan right now.

Zytaruk: Mayor Doug McCallum has said that part of the reason Surrey needs its own police force is because too many Surrey RCMP officers don’t live here, and yet you, its first police chief, live in Yaletown. What do you have to say about that?

Lipinski: Well, I can’t comment specifically to his comments but I will say, I’ll say this: That in my view if you look at the policing ecosystem in the Lower Mainland, I don’t know the exact numbers, but there is a high, high percentage of police officers that do not live in the jurisdiction that they police. Number two is, if you were to look at the executive of the 11 agencies in B.C. and if you were to look to see where they all live, you would see that there is a high percentage that do not live in the jurisdiction. It’s not so much where you live, it’s your skill set, your philosophy, your work ethic, your integrity, that’s what’s important here.

Zytaruk: What is your biggest challenge as the Surrey Police Service’s first chief constable?

Lipinski: My first challenge is public trust. Biggest challenge is to put together a plan on standing a large organization up of, let’s say 800 police officers and 300 civilian staff, and there’s no play-book for this. This is the first time in Canada that it’s done at this level and so essentially it’s like standing up a business of that magnitude, so in doing that my challenge is first of all to build a leadership structure. My challenge is then to start a recruiting drive, my challenge then is to populate the entire organization with the various specialty units, and my challenge is to work with the community in building a strategic plan. What’s important here for me, very important, is to build an organization that has a lot of diversity in it and that includes gender equity. Wherever I wentI always tried to recruit to the level of representation in the community. It’s very challenging to do that but I’m going to really, really work hard to have a very culturally diverse Surrey Police Service and with gender equity and I think that is the future of policing and I will push for that, I will hire my executive staff with that philosophy in mind, and I think it’s very positive for the citizens of Surrey. And then once I have that, I will work with the community and all the communities and everything from the South Asian community to the Indigenous to the business community, to the faith community, to the non-profit community. I have to touch base with all of them. I’ve already started a list and I want to hear what they say because this is their police service, it’s not mine, it’s their police service and the future of safety in Surrey is us working together.

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Zytaruk: This past year much has been said internationally about police reform and even de-funding police. What are your thoughts on this?

Lipinski: My view, the de-funding movement of course started south of the border and I want to first off say that policing in Canada is different than in the United States and you ask any Canadian police officer and he will tell you that. Hiring practices are different, the philosophy is different, of course the laws are different, etcetera. When we’re talking about de-funding police, I have a business graduate degree and I’m a fan of ROI, which is return on investment. No matter where I went, and part of my interview with the board as I went through the selection procedure, it was a lot about fiscal responsibility and so forth and so on. I worked through that and I always look at the best way for every dollar spent by the citizen in any police service that I worked in so my view is, on that side of the fence, I really lean forward on making it very efficient. Now, specific to de-funding, I don’t think there’s a science-based argument to be made in Canada for de-funding and that’s a general statement, but I’ll hone it down to specifics because I don’t know all the police departments intimately across Canada. But I do know by way of example here in Delta that de-funding is not a positive move and I think instead of de-funding I think there has to be more enhanced collaboration and that collaboration is with other social agencies that have an element of law enforcement in their work, specifically the homeless, the drug addicted, the vulnerable sector. So I think the future of policing when we’re talking about reform policing is working more closely together and looking at and addressing those social-economic factors that, at 2 a.m., there’s a call that comes in that requires police attendance and in a perfect world, if we can address those social-economic issues upstream, then downstream the police won’t be called and it does become, at certain times, an area where police are involved but maybe there’s a better way of doing it and I’m a fan of the prevention upstream and then collaboratively working more closely together at the downstream in order to help people, and therefore, help the community.

Zytaruk: On a lighter note, what do you think about actor Kevin Bacon? I’m sure people have told you that you two share a striking resemblance…

Lipinski: Ha ha, yes, since the Footloose movie I get that a lot. I get that especially through the last couple of decades, when I travel through the U.S. Right after the release of the movie I was in California at a training conference and, wow, it was astonishing how many people would ask me to sign autographs and I’m telling these people, ‘I’m not the guy.’ You know, in retrospect it was hilarious and some people even say I speak like him. At the time, there, my family says maybe you could be a double in movies, you could make a lot more than you do in policing, tongue in cheek. I’ve heard that over and over again and it’s fine, it’s great. And quite frankly when I present at policing conferences sometimes I even bring that up, and I have a picture of myself and Kevin Bacon from the movie A Few Good Men on the next slide, and so yes, on a lighter note.

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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