The Kansas Highway Patrol — saddled with stagnant pay and ensuing morale problems — can’t recruit new troopers fast enough to replace its retiring veterans.
As the number of state troopers declined in the last six years, there’s been a corresponding drop in traffic enforcement that highway safety advocates say puts thousands of Kansas drivers at risk.
Since 2008, the number of state troopers dropped 16 percent, leaving 409 officers responsible for more than 10,000 miles of Kansas highways. The number of troopers in the Kansas City area has dropped by about a third.
Troopers, meanwhile, write fewer tickets and make fewer drunken-driving arrests. From 2008 to 2014, drunken-driving arrests dropped 53 percent and troopers ticketed 31 percent fewer drivers.
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“We are extremely short across the state,” said Mitch Mellick, a master trooper and president of the Kansas State Troopers Association.
Mellick says troopers cover such broad territory, zipping from call to call, that they don’t have time for proactive traffic enforcement. “They are being reactive with all the crashes and all the calls they’re going to.”
The decline alarms highway safety advocates who believe it jeopardizes highway safety.
“It is hugely disturbing that the numbers are down so much,” said Chris Mann, chairman of the advisory board for Kansas Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Reducing the number of troopers will obviously make it difficult to apprehend those people committing DUIs.”
Highway Patrol officials acknowledge that the trooper shortage poses a “public safety concern.”
They struggle to recruit troopers to replace officers leaving the force. They say low pay, unpredictable hours and reported morale problems stemming from low pay undercut recruiting efforts.
“We are trying very hard to come up with strategies to address our hiring issues,” said Highway Patrol Maj. John Eichkorn.
Eichkorn stressed that the trooper positions are not being left open to save money as the state faces a massive budget deficit in the wake of tax cuts signed into law by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Instead, the patrol has seen a steady decline in applicants, from about 1,400 in 1988 to 267 last year. A rigorous screening process winnows the applicant pool to just a fraction of the prospective troopers applying for the job.
For example, out of the 267 applicants who started the hiring process last year, just six graduated from the patrol’s training academy in December. A year earlier, just 12 of 239 applicants eventually graduated.
The problem has been so bad at times that the state had to return federal grant money for hiring new troopers because it didn’t have enough graduates.
“We are finding fewer and fewer individuals who want to become law enforcement officers,” Eichkorn said.
Eichkorn said the Highway Patrol hired a full-time recruiter to replenish its ranks. He credited that hire with a new class of 403 applicants.
“The Kansas Highway Patrol isn’t going to convince anybody to be a police officer who doesn’t want to be,” he said. “But for those that do want to be a police officer, we want to be there shoulder-to-shoulder with these other great agencies to say, ‘Here’s what we can offer you.’”
Kansas is not the only state grappling with trooper shortages. Mississippi is running about 140 troopers short of the maximum number allowed by law. Pennsylvania State Police reported having 489 vacancies. Alabama is 452 troopers short of the levels recommended by a recent study.
Missouri is very different. The number of Missouri state troopers has risen nearly 18 percent since 2008, a spokesman said.
Where shortages exist, they weaken traffic enforcement, said Lt. Johnny Poulos, spokesman for the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
“Whenever the public knows you are short-handed,” Poulos said, “people are going to take chances.”
Part of the problem in Kansas is pay. A starting Kansas state trooper earns $42,702 a year. After five years, the salary increases to $49,462 where it stops without more funding approved by the Legislature.
Like other classified state employees, troopers are supposed to get a 2.5 percent salary bump each year as part of the state pay plan, but the Legislature hasn’t funded those raises since 2007.
The Legislature approved a 5 percent salary increase for troopers in 2012. The last cost-of-living increase approved before that was in 2008.
Mellick points to Kansas City, Kan., where salaries are negotiated with the police, as an example of how troopers compare with other police departments.
In, Kansas City, Kan. a starting officer is paid $40,417, rising to $62,746 after five years. In Johnson County, starting salaries for sheriff’s deputies range from $38,000 to $44,000 a year depending on experience. After five years, the salary ranges from $49,000 to $52,000 a year.
A survey conducted last year found that patrol morale was suffering partly because of low pay, according to a report by The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Ernest Garcia, who recently retired as the patrol’s superintendent, told the paper that morale could be improved if the patrol paid salaries comparable to what some local governments pay their police officers.
Garcia recommended that the governor authorize a 10 percent pay raise for uniformed officers, costing about $2.9 million a year.
But that could prove difficult while the state is trying to patch a $700 million hole in its budget. There are no planned pay increases for the Highway Patrol for the next two fiscal years beginning July 1.
Republican state Rep. Russ Jennings of Lakin is vice chairman of the House budget committee that oversees transportation and public safety. Jennings said he was shocked that the Highway Patrol had lost so many troopers.
The pay issue, he said, is not limited to the Highway Patrol. He pointed out that many state employee have gone without raises for years. “The state is certainly becoming less attractive in terms of an employer,” he said.
State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican and another member of the public safety budget committee, questions whether there is the political will to spend more.
“We are dealing with such a fiscal nightmare,” Rooker said. “The prevailing wisdom among House leadership is we’ve got to continue cutting the state budget. Where in that outlook is there room to address an issue like this?”