DURING the past three years, 84 Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers have retired or left the agency and not been replaced. This has left the OHP with 759 men and women on the roster, its lowest trooper staffing in 22 years. Of those 759 troopers, 210 could retire immediately if they chose to do so. In June, another 26 become eligible for retirement.
So it's no wonder Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson and the chief of the OHP, Col. Kerry Pettingill, are hoping the Legislature will provide a $6 million supplemental appropriation needed to fund a trooper academy that is scheduled to begin in late March. Thirty-five men are enrolled for the 20-week academy, the first for the OHP since 2009.
Thompson had hoped that new fees approved last year in two traffic-related bills would pay for the bulk of the academy. But the revenue generated by those fees came in far below projections, leaving the $6 million hole. Gov. Mary Fallin has endorsed the idea of the supplemental and so should lawmakers.
The reason is simple: Present staffing isn't adequate to cover the 98,000 miles of roadway and 4,000 miles of shoreline for which the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the Oklahoma Lake Patrol are responsible. For example, the newest trooper assigned to the lake patrol is responsible for a piece of Lake Texoma, all of Lake Murray and all of Waurika Lake.
Harmon County in southwestern Oklahoma has one OHP trooper. Troopers ride alone much of the time, which can be dangerous particularly at night and when the nearest backup may be 30 minutes or an hour away. Pettingill says it's routine, especially during daytime hours, for a lone trooper to cover parts of two counties along 70 miles or more of one of the interstate highways. “You're talking a lot of miles and a lot of distance,” he told our editorial board this week.
As a result, Thompson said, the OHP often finds itself reacting to incidents or accidents instead of being able to concentrate on areas where it knows accidents or violations frequently occur.
As the current crop of troopers grows older and leaves the department in the coming years, it will become more important for the OHP to be able to hold its academy each year. Pettingill notes that when this new academy class graduates this summer, the agency will have fewer troopers than when recruiting for the class began. And he expects to see “a significant drop in manpower” in the next five years due to retirements, with perhaps 50 troopers retiring in a year instead of the 30 usually seen now.
Thompson figures a complement of 950 troopers would be the ideal, but knows that's unrealistic. The upcoming academy will begin with 35 candidates. Perhaps 27 or 28 will see it through to the end, which might equal the number of troopers who will retire this year.
Thompson says that if the OHP were able to have a net gain of five troopers per year, it would take 16 years to replace the 84 troopers who have retired since the last academy was held.
“In the meantime, things still are continuing to grow,” he said. “Neither one of us wants to be a Chicken Little or an alarmist. We're just wanting people to know exactly what we're dealing with here.” Lawmakers, take note.