Politics & Government

State trooper shortage a ‘quagmire’ for Legislature

Washington State Patrol troopers and senior officers stand at attention during the Washington State Patrol new trooper graduation ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda in Olympia on Nov. 19.
Washington State Patrol troopers and senior officers stand at attention during the Washington State Patrol new trooper graduation ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda in Olympia on Nov. 19. toverman@theolympian.com

I was interviewing State Patrol Chief John Batiste last year at the Capitol when I asked him — as reporters often do — what he was up to that day.

“Recruiting,” Batiste said, with peculiar enthusiasm.

Halfway through our conversation, I realized he meant he was trying to recruit me, specifically.

I told him I’d be a poor choice to join the Washington State Patrol, citing my inability to do more than a single pushup as one of many potential problems. But Batiste didn’t let up, and kept steering the conversation back to the possibility of me joining the Patrol.

He wasn’t shy about telling me why: The agency needs people, he said, as many troopers were on the verge of retirement.

As we concluded our interview — originally about marijuana laws, not trooper retention — he again told me to think about a career with the State Patrol.

I did, in a sense: I left thinking about how desperate the agency must be for recruits if the chief was giving me, of all people, the hard sell.

A year later, things haven’t improved much for the agency, according to a new report released this week on trooper recruitment and retention.

Where we used to have 8 or 9 troopers on the road, now we have 3 or 4. Does that impact our ability to keep traffic flowing? Absolutely

Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association

About 100 of the State Patrol’s 671 field positions remain vacant, and the Patrol is losing troopers at a rate of about nine per month, said patrol spokesman Kyle Moore. If the trend isn’t reversed, the state will lose about half the troopers it has now by 2025, he said.

That’s not only because aging troopers are retiring, but also because younger troopers are leaving for local law enforcement agencies that offer higher pay, according to the report released Wednesday. The State Patrol has had trouble recruiting new cadets to help fill those positions.

Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, said fewer troopers on the road leads to slower responses to traffic accidents, which not only affects public safety, but also lengthens people’s commutes.

“Where we used to have eight or nine troopers on the road, now we have three or four. Does that impact our ability to keep traffic flowing? Absolutely it does,” Merrill said.

DIFFICULTY ATTRACTING RECRUITS

To attract more recruits, Moore said the agency has been reaching out to young people through social media and with new ad campaigns featuring testimonials from young troopers.

That’s probably why Batiste was talking to me about joining a year ago: I am part of the elusive “millennial” generation that is the focus of the Patrol’s new recruiting efforts. (I turn 30 next month.)

Moore said part of the goal of the “Trooper Stories” campaign has been to emphasize how troopers can make a difference, an aspect of the job he said appeals most to millennials.

In one testimonial, Trooper Jerrica Sparks recounts how she retrieved a girl’s favorite pink cowboy hat from the tree where it landed after a rollover collision, ensuring the little girl could have it when she woke up at the hospital.

In another spot, Trooper Kiesha Conan shares how a woman she stopped for drunken driving later sent her a thank-you card, saying the arrest was the wake-up call she needed to turn her life around.

The majority of people think the biggest part of a trooper’s job is giving out speeding tickets, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Kyle Moore, spokesman for Washington State Patrol

“The majority of people think the biggest part of a trooper’s job is giving out speeding tickets, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” Moore said.

Still, all the inspiring stories in the world can’t eliminate the difference in pay between the State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. The study released this week said low pay remains one of the biggest hurdles to recruiting new troopers and keeping experienced ones on board.

A survey of 11 other local law enforcement agencies found that all but one of them pay more than the State Patrol at every level.

For instance, while an entry level state trooper makes about $54,000, an entry level officer in Tacoma Police Department makes about $68,000.

For those with 25 years of experience, the State Patrol pays troopers about $77,000, compared with the $94,600 they’d make in Yakima and the $106,000 they’d earn in Seattle.

Merrill, the union president, said troopers would need raises of between 19 percent and 22 percent across the board to bring their pay in line with what officers are paid at comparable law enforcement agencies. Even that amount would put the State Patrol only in about the 50th percentile of agencies in terms of pay, he said.

“This is what happens when you just don’t pay what your competitors pay over time: it catches up with you, and you find yourself in this quagmire,” Merrill said.

TOO MANY TROOPERS RETIRING

The pay disparity has led to many early career troopers leaving the Patrol for other jobs in law enforcement, the report says. The pay also creates little incentive for Patrol veterans to stay beyond 25 years, when they become eligible to retire, according to the report.

And therein lies the other challenge facing the agency: Many of its troopers and other commissioned employees are on the cusp of retirement.

Commissioned employees, which make up about half the State Patrol’s total workforce, include not just troopers, but also chiefs and supervisory officers who went through the State Patrol training academy.

On average, about 33 commissioned Patrol employees have retired each year since 1990, according to the consultants’ report. This year, however, 70 commissioned Patrol employees were eligible to retire.

By the end of next year, 134 of the roughly 1,100 commissioned employees in the State Patrol will be retirement-eligible, the agency said.

While most other law enforcement agencies allow officers to retire with full benefits only after they turn 53, the state Patrol has no age requirement beyond the mandatory 25 years of service.

I know we’re not going to continue this free fall. We’re going to take it seriously.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, on the Legislature’s commitment to resolving trooper shortage

To help the Patrol weather the coming retirement bubble, the new report recommends the agency implement some kind of longevity pay or bonus system to encourage troopers to stay beyond the 25-year mark.

But like offering new recruits higher pay, those longevity bonuses will cost money. Merrill estimated that to increase pay across the board by the level the union deems necessary, it will cost the state about $20 million per year.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she thinks lawmakers can find that kind of money in the transportation budget. She said she and other lawmakers have known for some time that there is a problem with both attracting and retaining troopers, and are committed to working on it.

“I know we’re not going to continue this free fall,” Clibborn said. “We’re going to take it seriously.”

LAWMAKERS WILL REVIEW RECOMMENDATIONS

Sen. Curtis King, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he agrees the Legislature needs to look at boosting pay for troopers, so that it’s not so easy for other agencies to lure them away.

“We need to make sure we’re competitive with the other agencies, because that seems to be where they’re going,” King said. “They seem to be going to Seattle and some of the other cities that are offering better pay and better benefits.”

King and Clibborn said state lawmakers will carefully review the report’s recommendations and decide how to proceed.

Some of the policies recommended in the report, including allowing new recruits to become retirement eligible after 30 years of service, not 25, would need to be negotiated with the troopers union, and could face resistance, Merrill said.

Yet many of the ideas contained in the report are ones the union supports, Merrill said, such as being more forgiving of past drug use and misdemeanor convictions to widen the pool of potential recruits.

Moore, the State Patrol spokesman, said some of the agency’s recent outreach efforts already are having an effect.

The class of troopers that graduated from the State Patrol training academy in November included 25 people, which was low compared to past years. But the incoming class that started training last month included 53 cadets, Moore said. The Patrol is hoping that 45 of those cadets graduate to become troopers, he said.

Merrill cautioned that the agency will have to wait and see about that.

As of Thursday, two of those original 53 cadets had quit. Merrill said one of them left for another job: working for the Olympia Police Department.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune

  Comments