A graduation ceremony for Washington State Patrol cadets at the Capitol on Wednesday was more crowded than usual this year. The newest class of troopers — 49 in total — was the largest in modern history, according to patrol officials.
Sporting traditional bow ties and campaign hats, the cadets were a visual representation of improvements the agency says it has made in recruiting troopers, in part thanks to a promise of bigger paychecks from state lawmakers.
The patrol lost an average of nine troopers a month in 2015, many of whom bailed for higher salaries elsewhere. The agency also struggled to hire new officers.
In response, the Legislature gave troopers a 5 percent raise in the 2016 legislative session and promised to bring trooper pay in line with the top six local police departments around the state.
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Lawmakers delivered on the pledge last week when they approved a transportation budget that would hike salaries for troopers another 11 percent in July and 3 percent in 2018, said patrol spokesman Kyle Moore. Sergeants will get an additional 15 percent pay hike this year and a 3 percent bump in 2018.
“I think right now this is going to be a huge boon for us,” Moore said, “not only to bring troopers through the door, but to retain troopers that we have and prevent them from jumping to other law enforcement agencies.”
A January 2016 report showed entry level pay for troopers was far behind their peers. Those who had completed the academy training course were making about $51,500 to $56,600 a year.
A comparable officer in the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department would make $59,800 a year, according to the report. In Seattle, the discrepancy was even greater: A similar officer makes about $69,200 a year.
Moore said the Legislature’s pay raises won’t make the troopers the highest earners in the state, but they will be competitive.
Before that happens, Gov. Jay Inslee has to approve the raises. Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said he’s reviewing the transportation budget. But given the governor negotiated the salary hikes as part of a collective bargaining agreement with state employees, Smith said a veto isn’t likely.
“It’s hard to imagine that we’d veto the pay raises we’re fighting so hard for,” she said.
The pay hikes have had bipartisan support.
State Sen. Curtis King, the Republican-led Senate’s transportation leader, told media in January that significant pay raises were “pertinent to the success of the State Patrol.”
Last year’s pay raises — and anticipation of more — have already had an effect beyond the sizable cadet class, Moore said. The department lost about five troopers a month in 2016. So far in 2017, the patrol has lost just 14 troopers, nearly all because of retirement.
Departmental changes, including management strategies, new recruiting strategies and updated uniforms, get credit for an improved staffing outlook at the patrol.
The pay raises help, Moore said.
“We are losing people,” he said. “But at a much slower rate than we have been in the past.”
On Wednesday, the new troopers were sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst. The officers lined the steps of the rotunda in the state’s Legislative Building, their final hurdle to clear after 33 weeks of training. Inslee, Patrol Chief John Batiste and others addressed them, giving encouragement and advice while an audience looked on.
“I hope you realize you are not just servants of safety,” Inslee said. “You are servants of democracy.”