Reversing the loss of State Patrol troopers

That the Washington State Patrol was losing officers to better-paying jobs with police and sheriff departments across the state has become clear in recent years.

The State Patrol is authorized for 690 trooper positions, but currently only 580 are filled. And the drain of troopers, with ranks thinning more quickly than the patrol can add new hires, could reduce it to a force of as few as 250 by 2026 if current trends were to continue.

But trooper pay isn’t the only factor, according to a recently released study prepared for legislators that surveyed and interviewed current and former troopers and analyzed other data.

“There is no one fix. You cannot pay your way out of it,” former Sacramento police chief Rick Braziel, a member of the team preparing the study, told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield in Monday’s issue.

The report found that while better pay elsewhere was an incentive to leave, it was dissatisfaction among troopers with their workload, working conditions and with the agency’s management that was prompting troopers to look elsewhere in the first place. While 90 percent of current troopers surveyed reported dissatisfaction with their pay and benefits, 90 percent also were unhappy with management. Among current troopers, 64 percent said they would not encourage anyone to join the State Patrol, and 79 percent of former troopers in the survey also would advise against working for the agency.

The report found a range of reasons for troopers’ on-the-job displeasure, among them:

Management that is more concerned with the number of citations rather than on outcomes, such as fewer traffic deaths;

A lack of communication between troopers in the field and their leadership;

An increased workload because of the unfilled positions;

A shift rotation that requires troopers, regardless of seniority, to work 56 days on the day shift, then 56 days on the night shift; and

Out-of-date and uncomfortable uniforms, made of wool and last redesigned more than 50 years ago.

The report shows where work is needed and who’s responsible for taking the lead.

While few express dissatisfaction with State Patrol Chief John Batiste, the report is clear that patrol leadership should evaluate its own performance, shift its focus to outcomes rather than numbers and identify changes in management and working conditions that will improve its standing with its troopers and those looking to join its ranks.

And while the agency’s leadership is addressing those issues, the Legislature also needs to make the necessary investments that will maximize the effectiveness of those changes.

The report recommends the Legislature will need to work with the State Patrol and the state Office of Financial Management to develop a long-term compensation plan. While it could take several years to implement, the plan should provide some reassurance to current troopers that the issue is being addressed. In the short term, the report also recommends that troopers with 20 years or more of service and considering retirement should be encouraged to remain with the agency through the use of increased pay or retention bonuses.

The governor has identified $465,000 in his supplemental budget that can begin some of this work. Lawmakers should include that allocation in the supplemental budget in the coming session, then be prepared to provide adequate funding during the next full budget session to help the State Patrol put more troopers on the job before the agency celebrates its centennial year in 2021.

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