The Washington State Patrol’s trooper shortage has gone from bad to worse in recent years.
WSP pay is so low that the agency has trouble both with recruitment and retention, as many troopers have left for higher-paying jobs with other law enforcement agencies in the state. Entry-level positions, for instance, pay about $54,000 compared to the Tacoma Police Department’s $68,000. Veteran troopers earn much less than their counterparts in other agencies in the same region.
Today, about 110 of the WSP’s 671 field positions are unfilled, and the average vacancy rate has increased every month since 2009.
On Tuesday, state legislators struck a deal that, while not a cure for the the WSP’s losses, at least applies a Band-Aid to help staunch the flow from the ranks. Troopers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains would get a 5 percent pay raise July 1 on top of 3 percent raises already scheduled to go into effect for troopers and sergeants. The deal also commits legislators to return to the subject next year, in a longer session, and come up with another round of raises.
That sounds good, but the troopers’ union president estimated that raises would need to be between 19 and 22 percent just to bring salaries up to about the 50th percentile of other agencies. Next year, legislators will feel the pressure of the 2018 court-ordered deadline to fully fund basic education. WSP pay raises can’t get put on the back burner – again.
Unless significant action is taken, the shortage is projected to worsen because so many troopers who have stuck around are on the verge of leaving; nearly 40 percent of commissioned staff are eligible to retire in the next decade. The WSP’s commissioned employees become eligible for full benefits after only 25 years on the job, and the relatively low pay offers little incentive to stay.
Jeff Merrill, president of the WSP troopers’ union, said that in many cases, three or four troopers are working in areas where eight or nine used to patrol.
Not enough Smokeys pulling speeders over on the freeway? Highway hotdogs are probably OK with that. But the shortage also means fewer troopers pulling over impaired drivers, which makes the highways less safe for all of us. And it’s taking longer to investigate and clear lane-closing accidents, bringing traffic to a standstill during peak commute times all too often.
It’s also important to look at non-salary issues that are affecting recruitment and retention, which are outlined in a new study commissioned by the Legislature. It found low morale related to working conditions, workload and a perception that many troopers feel undervalued and not listened to within the agency.
Among the recommendations in the study: Give recruits more input into which region they’re assigned to; move the WSP away from a paramilitary culture to a more “contemporary” approach; use nontraditional outreach methods to recruit more women and minorities; get trooper input on updated, more comfortable uniforms; and consider reinstating a youth-oriented outreach like the discontinued Explorer program.
The WSP is losing many potential recruits because it rejects candidates who admit past drug use or misdemeanor convictions. The study recommends changing to a case-by-case review to consider extenuating circumstances. That makes sense; many people who got into trouble as youths grow up to be productive, law-abiding adults.
The study offers valuable information and recommendations for lawmakers to consider, and not all carry a big price tag. They’d be wise to follow through on as many as they can – along with salary increases – to help get the WSP back to form.