Patrol chief takes issue with report’s conclusions on staffing concerns

OLYMPIA — Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste had one request of consultants studying the reasons his agency struggles with recruiting and retaining troopers.

“I told them, ‘Please go out and find the good, the bad and the ugly.’ I’m open to all of it,” he said this week.

They didn’t disappoint, producing a detailed portrait of an agency’s successes and shortcomings in coping with a steady exodus of troopers — now almost nine a month — due to low pay, job dissatisfaction and retirement. Vacancies in the Field Operations Bureau this month number about 85.

The $240,000 study prepared by Public Financial Management, Inc. examined the agency’s pay scales, hiring policies and recruitment practices, and recommended changes in all of them to try to stem the tide of departures and fill the vacancies.

Most of what they revealed didn’t surprise Batiste, who said replenishing the ranks has been a challenge throughout his 11-year tenure as chief. The main reason, he said, is salaries haven’t been competitive for years.

“Dating back to even when Gov. (Chris) Gregoire was in office we had conversations about this as an approaching firestorm,” he said. “Now we’re in the middle of it.”

Batiste welcomed the consultant’s recommendations for an across-the-board pay increase, though he knows the Legislature can’t provide the money to do so this year.

Starting pay for troopers is about 10 percent lower than what deputy sheriffs are paid by the largest counties, including Snohomish, and police officers in largest cities, including Seattle. Even after 25 years on the job, the base salary is still lower, according to charts prepared by the consulting firm.

When you trail your counterparts by that much in other law enforcement agencies, it doesn’t feel good, he said.

“Their spirits are as high as they can be,” he said.

But Batiste sharply disagreed with one of the report’s central findings: that dissatisfaction with how the agency is managed is a bigger motivator than higher salaries in troopers’ decision to leave.

“There’s always a degree. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “In terms of being a systemic issue, no I don’t get that feeling.”

Consultants identified low morale among the front line force as a critical problem that hampers retaining newer hires.

They surveyed 482 troopers and sergeants, and 46 percent said that they didn’t feel valued by the agency. On another question, 64 percent of current troopers, and 79 percent of those who’ve recently left, said they would not encourage people to join the Washington State Patrol.

Batiste said he’s not detected such feelings as he traveled the state to meet with troopers in the past year.

“The encouragement for open and straightforward dialogue with the troopers is something that I have always advocated and firmly believe in,” he said.

As for the recommendations to consider making changes in management, he said, “I don’t agree with that. We have some of the best managers in the business of law enforcement.”

Troopers also expressed concern to consultants that they are under increasing pressure to write more tickets and make more stops as part of their job.

“We don’t have quotas. It’s wrong. It’s inaccurate,” Batiste responded.

Data compiled from troopers on traffic stops, and from tickets, is used to identify the most prevalent enforcement issues. From there, he said, they can develop strategies.

“We use data to help us make informed decisions and then we deploy our resources accordingly to attack those problems,” he said. “It’s not about going out and making ‘X’ number of arrests, although it takes arrests to help control the problem. It’s about informing them to go out and pay attention to the leading causes of incidents occurring in the roadways.”

Consultants also suggested retooling elements of the hiring process. For example, the state patrol rejects 38 percent of its recruits because they fail to pass the agency’s psychological exam. Nationally, the average failure rate for local enforcement is 5 percent, according to the report.

Batiste said the agency is looking at “where we stand in relation to the industry norm” and if standards need adjusting to remain current. But there won’t be any lessening of the standards, he said.

Lawmakers are expected to hold hearings on the report’s findings and recommendations this month.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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