State patrol staffing concerns go beyond pay

OLYMPIA — Higher salaries alone won’t solve the Washington State Patrol’s problem with recruiting and retaining troopers.

Dissatisfaction with how the agency is managed is proving a bigger motivator than money in troopers’ decision to sign on with other law enforcement departments in the state, concludes a new report delivered to lawmakers this month.

The $240,000 study prepared by Public Financial Management, Inc. burrows deep into the agency’s pay scales, hiring policies and recruitment practices and recommends changes in all of them to stem the tide of departures and to begin replenishing the ranks.

“There is no one fix. You cannot pay your way out of it,” said former Sacramento police chief Rick Braziel, a member of the consulting team.

A critical problem is low morale among troopers who told consultants they are underpaid, overworked due to increasing vacancies and ignored by their bosses. In a survey conducted for the report, 64 percent of current troopers and 79 percent of those who have recently left said they would not encourage people to join the Washington State Patrol.

“Your greatest recruiting tool is your troopers,” Braziel told lawmakers at a hearing this month. “They’re just not happy. If they’re not happy, they’re not recruiting.”

The head of the Washington State Patrol Trooper Association says the 188-page analysis makes a strong case for a shake-up in the agency hierarchy.

“I think the fact that the management issue came up was a shock to a lot of people,” said association president Jeff Merrill. “Can we continue to operate at a high level under the current command structure? I don’t know.”

But Merrill stopped short of calling on WSP Chief John Batiste to step down.

“I love Chief Batiste. He’s a fantastic person. We have some significant problems under his leadership and they need to be addressed,” he said.

A state patrol spokesman welcomed the report’s findings but declined to respond to suggestions it could cost Batiste his job.

“It gave us insights into some of the root causes of why people are leaving and it will help us create a blueprint for the future,” said spokesman Kyle Moore. “It is a good opportunity to review the way that we are managing people at every level.”

The Washington State Patrol is seeing its ranks depleted faster than can be restocked. At the end of October it had 580 troopers and roughly 110 vacancies. It is losing about nine more every month, Moore said.

As vacancies mount, the problem is compounded by newer hires leaving in their first five years to take better-paying jobs with local law enforcement agencies. On top of this, dozens of veteran troopers are eligible for retirement and as they leave, the situation worsens, the report found.

“Something has to be done,” said Russ Bransom, who directed the study.

Compensation is a major issue. 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. And after 25 years on the job, the base salary is still lower, according to charts prepared by the consulting firm.

A new state patrol hire will earn a base salary of $54,192. It rises to $72,505 after five years of service and $76,905 when they reach 25 years and can retire. A deputy sheriff in Snohomish County will initially earn $59,240. The salary rises to $78,991 after five years and $85,439 after 25 years, according to the report.

Consultants suggest an across-the-board pay increase to make salaries more competitive and to consider offering financial incentives to keep retirement-eligible troopers from leaving.

Consultants also suggested retooling elements of the hiring process to boost recruiting.

They found the policy of automatically rejecting applicants with any misdemeanor convictions or past drug use may be too harsh. The report recommends the circumstances of each case be examined to determine if a past incident makes an individual unfit for hire.

The psychological testing portion needs revamping too, they said. Right now 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.

Moore said such changes won’t be done immediately.

“We are definitely going to take all of this under consideration,” he said. “At this point, at least in the immediate term, I don’t think we are going to lower our standards in hiring troopers or cadets.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, in anticipation of the report’s release, put $465,000 in his supplemental budget proposal for 2016. State patrol leaders would decide how to spend it.

The Legislature will consider the report’s findings and the governor’s budget recommendations when the session begins Jan. 11.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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