Faced with challenges recruiting and retaining troopers, the Washington State Patrol is grappling with a staff shortage. And it could get worse before it gets better.
OLYMPIA — Her eyes peering out from under a wide-brimmed Washington State Patrol trooper hat, Chelsea Krotzer recounts the day she helped rush blood to where it was needed for an emergency transfusion.
She became the middle link in a relay of Patrol cruisers, ferrying the blood from county to county, zooming down a foggy highway, racing against time.
“You never know what you’re gonna do when you come in to work,” Krotzer says in the recruiting ad, one of a series of billboard and radio spots featured, along with her photo, on the agency’s website. “It’s never routine. There’s nothing routine about being a trooper.”
Krotzer’s story is one of a half-dozen trooper testimonials the Washington State Patrol is using to drum up interest among a younger generation to take up a career in state law enforcement.
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The marketing efforts are also a race against time. Beset with challenges that include a graying of the force, and trouble recruiting and retaining troopers who can earn higher pay in other local law-enforcement agencies, the State Patrol faces a staffing shortage in field operations, which covers thousands of miles of state highways.
There were 106 vacancies as of Oct. 30 — out of a total 671 positions, according to the Patrol. The average monthly number of unfilled positions has risen each year since 2009.
The shortages spurred the Legislature to order a study on how to retain state troopers and recruit new ones. Preliminary research from that study has identified at least two reasons for the shortage:the “retirement bubble” and its wave of career veterans turning in their badges, and a sizable number of younger troopers leaving to take law-enforcement jobs elsewhere. In a survey for the study, those who left for other positions cited the Patrol’s lagging pay as one factor.
Police departments in Seattle and Tacoma, and sheriffs’ departments in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties all offer more for starting and advanced pay than the State Patrol, according to the recruiting and retention work group.
The unfilled positions are spread over eight districts and multiple shifts. Patrol spokesman Kyle Moore said drivers shouldn’t notice major effects from the shortage.
But Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, said the shortages are already causing problems. From paperwork to patrolling swaths of highways during rush hours, “You have three or four people doing what eight or nine used to,” Merrill said.
The shortages have limited state troopers’ coverage of Snoqualmie Pass and their ability to help clear accidents on the highways during peak commuting times, according to Merrill.
Regardless, if the trend continues, “We would be at half our normal workforce by the year 2025,” according to Moore. From patrolling to enforcing laws, helping motorists and investigating accidents, “Take what we do and cut it in half,” he said.
The group studying the state-trooper shortage still has other factors to examine — among them, the Patrol’s recruiting practices and working conditions — before it makes a report and recommendations to the Legislature in December.
But preliminary findings revealed to the Joint Transportation Committee in October showed that salaries for both entry-level and more experienced officers are lower than for at least nine other law-enforcement agencies around the state.
Starting out, a state trooper earns about $54,000 a year. But new officers at other agencies — including the King County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Seattle, Pasco, Vancouver and Kennewick — begin at $10,000 more, according to data compiled by Public Financial Management Inc., which is conducting the study.
New recruits at sheriffs’ offices in Pierce and Snohomish counties and the Tacoma Police Department earn starting salaries not quite that high — but still higher than the State Patrol.
Likewise, experienced state troopers earn less than veteran officers in all of those agencies, according to the data.
“It surprised me that [state troopers] were at the very bottom,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
While retirements were unusually high in 2015, according to the findings, the number of commissioned staff eligible to retire over the coming decade is “increasing dramatically.”
Mitch Barker, of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said this retirement bubble is happening at other law-enforcement agencies, too. During the recession and slow economic recovery, some retirement-age officers held off a few years, according to Barker, executive director of the association.
State troopers with less that five years experiences are also leaving the Patrol in larger numbers, according to the preliminary findings.
These officers are a commodity in the law-enforcement world, since unlike new recruits, they’ve already successfully completed training and background checks, according to Barker.
And there’s a generational shift under way, according to Barker.
Rather than staying with one agency for much of a career, law-enforcement officers are now more willing to move to other agencies, he said.
Finding a solution
Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said increasing salaries would be one likely solution.
But lawmakers will need to wait until the work group makes its final report and recommendations before knowing exactly what to address, Clibborn said.
King said that because the upcoming legislative session starting in January is a short 60-day session, there may not be enough time to find a comprehensive solution.
But, “I think we’ll get started on it,” he said.
In the meantime, the State Patrol is trying to recruit law-enforcement officers from other states like Texas, Utah and Oregon, Moore said, and is making pitches to members of the military.
It is also aiming to have 60 cadets enter its 34-week training class in mid-November, and the agency hopes 45 of those will graduate, he said.
That would be up from the standard cadet class of 25 to 35 the Patrol usually sees, according to Moore, which would generally mint up to 25 new troopers.
“We’ll get those [study recommendations] in December,” Moore said. “But we’re not just sitting by.”