OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington State Patrol troopers aren’t just leaving because they’re underpaid and nearing retirement age, according to a new report.
They’re also unhappy with the agency’s management — and many say they are looking to leave in the near future.
A report released this month highlights the extent of dissatisfaction among troopers, calling the situation “unsustainable” and making recommendations to better keep and recruit troopers.
More than half the nearly 500 troopers and sergeants who responded to a survey for the report said their opinions aren’t taken into account by the Washington State Patrol (WSP). And 46 percent of those responding said they didn’t feel valued by the agency.
“For many who stay, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction and low morale that impacts” the agency’s operations, according to the report’s executive summary.
Through interviews and survey comments, the report found troopers unhappy with how shifts are scheduled and the agency’s expectations over the number of tickets to be written and driver stops to be made.
WSP “is so numbers driven it has lost touch” with what troopers are there to do, said one respondent featured in the report.
Said another: “The Patrol is a numbers-based agency, which I understand, however it has gotten to the point that I start my shift stressed out because I don’t think I will get in the right number of stops for the right reasons.”
The state Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee commissioned the study to determine how to stop the mounting shortages of troopers who patrol thousands of miles of roads.
There are about 100 vacancies in the agency’s 671-person field-operations bureau, which covers thousands of miles of state highways. And every year since 2009, the average monthly number of unfilled positions has risen.
The report — conducted by Public Financial Management — also spells out the urgency of the problem. Nearly 20 percent of those responding to the survey said they planned to leave WSP for another law-enforcement agency in the next two years.
“WSP management needs to act now to stop this unsustainable level of trooper resignations,” according to the report.
The report lists workplace morale and low pay compared to other law-enforcement agencies as its two major themes. But its two dozen recommendations include other suggestions, like improved recruiting practices.
The recommendations range from boosting pay and changing the way shifts are scheduled, to conducting performance evaluations of all management staff. Others suggest the agency engage troopers on the design of new uniforms, and be more open-minded toward potential recruits who have had minor convictions or past drug use.
WSP welcomed the report “as a big opportunity for us as an agency to look inside and figure out what we can do” to better keep and recruit troopers, said Kyle Moore, spokesman for the agency.
And the reports of troopers’ dissatisfaction with management are “good for us to hear,” Moore said.
The agency — which is funded through the state’s transportation budget — is already moving forward with the suggestion regarding uniforms, according to Moore. And while the agency hasn’t decided how to proceed on other recommendations, he acknowledged that “there needs to be better communication” with troopers from management. Moore also raised the prospect of WSP reviewing how its managers are trained.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he hopes lawmakers can help in the legislative session that starts in January.
“We obviously can’t continue to let the exodus keep going like it is,” said King, adding later: “From my standpoint, you can’t receive this kind of information and then wait a year to see if it works itself out.”
The findings on troopers’ attitudes toward management add a new dimension to WSP‘s staffing troubles.
The working group that drafted the report previously outlined how poorly paid troopers jump to other law-enforcement agencies, and how a coming “retirement bubble” of older officers would further deplete the force.
Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, said complaints to the agency about pay, shift schedules and other issues have previously fallen on deaf ears.
“The rank and file believe they don’t get enough support from management,” Merrill said.
Where eight or nine troopers previously patrolled any given area, only three or four do so now, according to Merrill. The vacancies have also limited trooper coverage of Snoqualmie Pass and the ability to help clear highway accidents during commuting hours, Merrill has said.
Merrill — who credits the report with shining a spotlight on the issues — suggested allowing more overtime shifts as a short-term staffing solution.
Moore said district commanders and supervisors are authorized to allow overtime. But WSP has focused on “being a good steward of public money” and not overspending, he added.
King and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, agree the Legislature likely will have to boost trooper salaries.
A state trooper just beginning a career earns about $54,000 annually. But new officers at other agencies — like the King County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Seattle, Vancouver, Pasco and Kennewick — start with at least $10,000 more.
On that front, the report recommends that WSP work with the state Office of Financial Management to develop a long-term plan to make pay more competitive.
While Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed 2016 supplemental budget allocates $465,000 to help with recruiting new troopers and retaining current ones, it does not set aside money for more pay.
As for the morale issues, “this is not something that the Legislature has a whole lot of control over,” King said. “But I think there’s got to be ways that we can help.”
Clibborn said the draft report sent “a strong message” and WSP needs to let the Legislature know how it can help.
“We need,” she said, “to be working together.”