Deputy Chief Constable Jennifer Hyland, in charge of support services for the new Surrey Police Service that’s set to replace the Surrey RCMP, says providing help for incoming police officers to deal with trauma and related mental health issues is “absolutely” a priority for her and the fledgling city police force.
“One hundred per cent,” she said. “Member wellness, and culture and support is one of the key things that I’m going to be building here.”
The worst thing any organization can do, Hyland said, is to make people fear coming forward to say they need a little bit of help.
“We are going to create a culture that you do not need to be fearful, we expect you to be well and we’ll do what it takes to get you well. Mental health is not something to be embarrassed about. You wouldn’t be embarrassed about a broken leg. You’d be called a poor decision maker if you broke your leg and refused to get assistance for fixing it – people would be, like, ‘Why didn’t you go get that fixed?’”
Mental health is a topic that’s gained increasing notoriety, particularly as we’re all trying to navigate our way through this pandemic. That said, as with all first responders, police officers have never been strangers to trauma.
“COVID certainly has a way of highlighting that our wellness is only as good as we are able to support each other,” Hyland noted.
When she was a Surrey Mountie, she worked in plainclothes investigating child sexual abuse cases. Looking back on how she tried to cope with that, she said she simply tried to pretend it didn’t happen and tried “pushing it all down.”
“If you’ve never been exposed to it, you really don’t have an understanding of how traumatizing it is,” Hyland explained. “It’s one of those hidden, real sacrifices the average person doesn’t know about.”
In years past, it used to be thought that trauma counselling was for police officers who’d been involved in investigating or attending particularly horrific major crime incidents. But it’s increasingly apparent not all PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) cases stem from one-off events.
A lot can happen in a 12-hour shift. For example, a police officer might attend a sudden death, and then arrest somebody on a warrant, and then get into a fight, and then investigate a case of alleged child sexual abuse. “And then they’ve got to come back and do it again another day,” Hyland said.
“Sometimes the trauma that they are exposed to isn’t necessarily a big one-time incident that was life-threatening, it can be a whole series of traumatic smaller things that happen throughout the course of their day or their week or their month that start to accumulate,” she said. “Research is now showing us that the cumulative effect of some of these things that all of a sudden catch people off guard.”
“Those are types of things we as police leaders never paid attention to. We thought it was the big shoot-em-up police fight, or major police incident, we tended not to pay attention to some of these things that caused damage to our police officers.
“What the researchers told us is you start to develop physical symptoms and health issues. So when people talk about mental health, they really talk about it like as if it’s something happening in your brain. What we realize now is that there’s an actual physiological response to not addressing mental health. You can have heart issues, and blood pressure issues, you can develop aut0-immune issues.”
Supporting the mental health of police officers is not exclusively about their individual well-being.
“Healthy, well-supported police officers are healthy and well in support of the community,” Hyland said. “So when they have to go to a family in trauma, if they are supported and well they do better for that family, they do better for that victim, they are more patient and compassionate when they are dealing with the community.
“And we can’t have unwell people doing that.”
Before Hyland was hired on to the Surrey Police Service in early January, she served as the officer in charge of Ridge Meadows RCMP. Her first day at her new job was on Monday, Jan. 25. The Now-Leader interviewed her on Thursday of that week. What was her first week like?
“Oh good lord, it’s only Thursday,” she laughed. “By Tuesday I had probably done two weeks of work in 48 hours.”
Hyland described her first week on the job as amazing, adding she’s impressed with the team seconded over more than a year ago from city hall to tackle the police force transition. “Boy are they ever passionate and professional. So my week has been a series of presentations from all these teams, with the work they’ve done and what they feel what sort of decisions need to be made and their just super-committed people. I’m so impressed with the calibre of workers.”
“They’ve waited their whole career to not assume a product that somebody else built, but to build it themselves,” she said.
“It’s kind of like being at a smorgasbord and realizing you can’t eat everything at once, and you’re just going to have to go with it and slowly work your way through the things that need to be done.”
Fellow Deputy Chief Constable Mike LeSage, another long-time RCMP officer, has been hired to head SPS’s community policing bureau and is expected to start soon. A third deputy chief has not yet been hired. “There’s a pool of people for a whole series of different positions that are still in process and that deputy position is one of them,” Hyland said.
Meantime, they’re working on hiring superintendents and inspectors. The third deputy chief will be responsible for investigative services and he or she will be responsible for continuity, particularly transferring all Surrey RCMP’s serious crimes files over to the new police force. “Old files that are unsolved,” Hyland noted.
There continues to be vehement opposition to the new police force from people who want to keep the RCMP as the city’s police force. A letter from a “Surrey resident and taxpayer” who identified as a former Surrey Mountie was widely circulated this past week claiming that the deputy chief constables’ annual salaries are $250,000, that Chief Constable Norm Lipinski is making “anywhere from $300,000 to $350,000” annually and that a third-year constable will be paid $110,000 per year.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Hyland said. “That is not an accurate figure for my contract.”
She noted that $107,000 is the highest pay rate for a first class constable in B.C.
“We don”t even have a Surrey Police Service collective agreement yet, so our collective agreement is going to be worked out still, but the current collective agreements that are out there are usually the basis for other police forces. So there isn’t a collective agreement that says $110,000 for Surrey Police officers, because we don’t actually have that agreement yet and the closest I’m aware of is $107,000 at Delta.”
Melissa Granum, executive director of the Surrey Police Board, confirmed Friday that the chief constable’s salary for the SPS is $285,000 and the deputy chiefs are paid $235,000.
Granum told the Now-Leader that the Surrey Police Board ensured the salary offer was comparable to that of other Canadian police chiefs to “attract, retain and engage the best candidate for this important role.
“It is important to be competitive,” she noted.
“Within this market,” Granum added, the Surrey Police Board – which has “complete oversight and approval of the executive wage ranges” for these positions, “is not the highest payer nor the lowest payer.”