Long shifts, odd calls, brutal weather: Inside the Wyo. Highway Patrol staffing shortage
There were 87 vacant positions in the agency as of January, which means the department is understaffed by 25%
By Sofia Saric
Casper Star Tribune
CASPER, Wyo. — It's noon on a Wednesday when Sgt. Clint Christensen hops in his state-issued Chevrolet Tahoe to start his 10-hour shift for the Wyoming Highway Patrol. He's been awake and working since around 8 a.m. for a training. This is usually one of his slower days because it's a mid-week swing shift.
His black SUV is caked in dust and dirt, which he apologizes for several times. He didn't have time to take it through the wash because he just returned from visiting his father, which he doesn't get to do often.
Ever since his promotion last spring, he's had more to do in what feels like less time. It "can get really exhausting" when working 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-hour days, covering large areas in often difficult weather conditions with little nearby backup.
He's hardly alone. For a host of reasons, the highway patrol is down about 50 troopers (one in four positions are currently vacant), meaning longer work weeks and more responsibilities for the rest of the force.
"It's like three, four days in a row of having to call my wife and be like, 'Hey, I'm not going to be home on time. I'd like to see the kids before they go to bed.' And I have no idea when I'm going to be home," Christensen says.
He will miss his kid's ballet performance tonight. His family never celebrates Christmas or New Year's on the day of the holiday.
"I can go work a lot of other jobs and have better scheduling and make more money," Christensen says. "But there's an intrinsic fulfillment that I receive through this career by being able to, in certain circumstances, help people. And it's a fun career."
The state of his patrol car is really bothering him. Christensen heads off to get it washed but is interrupted by a crash on the way. A fender-bender on Interstate 25 in Casper is creating a hazard, as there is only one traffic lane due to some construction.
He parks his patrol car on the highway to alert drivers to slow down.
A usual work week is four days on and three days off, he explains. With the highway patrol's staffing issues, there is no such thing as a regular work week.
It's constant overtime, he says. Some patrol officers are working seven-day weeks with regularity because of temporary-duty assignments. At least one of the men in Casper does them often.
Troopers sometimes work for other Wyoming Highway Patrol districts on their off days. It's the understaffed helping the severely understaffed.
"We're pretty short here, so I try not to leave often," he says.
Dispatch tells him the accident has cleared.
"Now, we'll go to the car wash."
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At the car wash, he watches the grime from the past week dripping down his patrol car and appears a bit relieved. He uses an SUV because of his towering size. Long days in the patrol cars started giving him back problems.
"The floorboards are dirty though. It's not fine. It should be much better than it is," he says.
It's hard to encourage troopers to do self-care when they can't take the day off, he says. The Wyoming Highway Patrol has an "industry-leading, nationwide example" of excellent mental health services made available for its employees, but the troopers are spread so thin it's hard to justify taking the time to use them.
"It's because we literally have no one to fill their spot on the schedule," he says. "Like, I know you really want to go out of town for your buddy's wedding, and we'll do what we can. But now somebody, in order for you to go to that wedding, your shift partner now has to work 12 days in a row."
Wyoming isn't getting enough highway patrol applicants to fill the gap, he explains. There were 87 vacant positions in the agency as of January, which means the entire department is understaffed by 25%.
Christensen used to work for a police department in the South. They were hiring for 35 positions at one point. There were 1,100 applicants.
Currently, the Wyoming Highway Patrol is trying to fill upwards of 50 trooper positions. And they received about 150 applicants, many of whom are not qualified or quit soon after completing their stint at the training academy.
There may be one reason for that, which is simply out of the agency's control.
The general demographic for an entry-level law enforcement applicant is 22 to 25 years old, and it's hard to attract those young people, Christensen says. Those who are starting out career-wise are also usually starting out life-wise.
"Yep, we're hiring, but the openings are in Worland or Wamsutter, where you have a population of a couple hundred. You have no dating life; you have no life outside of work."
On the other hand, there are things the state could change to attract more, better qualified applicants. The benefits in Wyoming just don't compare to other states, he says.
Wyoming can't compete with what Colorado pays because it has a smaller population and smaller tax base. A starting trooper at the academy makes over $6,000 a month in Colorado. In Wyoming, they make about $4,000. But there could and should be some ability to improve wages, he says.
"So it's like, well do you want to go be somewhere in Colorado on the Front Range? Which is not only beautiful, but there's tons of people, you have lots of opportunity and make double what you're going to make here," he says. "Or, come work in Wyoming, where you're basically going to be alone for the foreseeable future."
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"This is my office," he says with a smile, while waving his hand across the dashboard, pointing towards a range of snowy mountains west of Casper.
"This is one of the beauties of highway patrol. We have a ton of autonomy. We get in the car, and we just drive wherever we want. Our motto is do the right thing for the right reason at the right time."
While cruising around, he spots a little gray car hitting 91 mph in front of a semi-truck. He whips a U-turn and pursues it, reaching almost 120 mph in the process. The stop takes him about eight minutes; he stops a second speeding car a while later.
There was a "paradigm shift" that made him realize the importance of traffic stops.
At his last law enforcement job, a guy was driving drunk over a hill at about 90 mph and lost control. He crashed into a passing Kia Soul.
The woman driving was killed. Her kids were at daycare. Her husband was deployed, so she was acting as a single mother.
"I lived on that road, and it could have easily been my wife driving down that same street and my kids," he says. "Life is fleeting."
That same reasoning sometimes inspires Christensen to give people a break.
A man who was about 82 hit 110 mph down an on-ramp in his Corvette late one night. His wife just died, and he wanted to have a "little fun" in his sports car. He did it when there wasn't any traffic, and he wasn't impaired.
"What do you even say to that?" Christensen said. "You're just enjoying some life while you have some left to live."
To be a highway trooper is to be nearly constantly on the move. It means hours in a patrol car, which also serves as a call center, a dining room and a trash can throughout a shift. There are only quick stops at headquarters for fuel and bathroom breaks and at gas stations for snacks or meals.
As the afternoon progresses, Christensen finishes up an energy drink in his cup holder and stops at the Mavericks in Mills to buy a couple more. His wife doesn't like him drinking those; she's a nurse.
"There's the old saying if you love your job, you will never have to work a day in your life," he says. "Which is BS. It's still work."
It's bright and sunny when Christensen leaves Casper to respond to a call, but soon he's driving through whiteout conditions on Highway 387 towards Gillette.
"Hey, I'll call you back here in a bit," Christensen says to his wife over the phone. "I'm heading to a crash right now, so I love you. Bye."
Dozens of cars are trapped all over the icy roads. Helping drivers is a big part of the job. But being out in winter conditions can be dangerous. So far this year, there have been instances when patrolmen have had to jump out of the way of cars that have lost control on the ice. In other cases, cars struck patrol vehicles, causing injuries to troopers.
"Two years ago, I got hit by a semi over there while stopped," he says.
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Christensen works for Troop B out of District Two headquarters, which is located in Casper. But the district covers communities that are spread out over hundreds of miles.
The shortage not only makes the job more difficult but makes emergencies more dangerous for Wyomingites — and for troopers. It can be hours before a person makes it to a hospital or receives assistance depending on where they are located.
As the evening commute begins, there are only 37 troopers out on the roads covering all of Wyoming, the ninth largest state in the U.S.
He mentions that his GPS is shoddy, so he can see where everyone else on the patrol is located, but they can't usually see him.
"If something happens, no one knows where I am."
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Christensen's family is likely sitting down for dinner. He's starving, but he's also nowhere near any place that sells food to go. Luckily, another trooper picks up some fried chicken on the way to the crash site near Highway 387.
They pull up next to each other, and Christensen grabs the chicken through the window.
It seems like there are a million different problems facing the Wyoming Highway Patrol. And they all could be solved or improved by one thing — money.
The only way to do this would be to pass a bill or a series of bills through the Wyoming Legislature regarding the state Department of Transportation budget. There were a few bills heard this year regarding the department, but none that offer any significant changes in terms of funding.
"We went like 11 years without a pay raise," he says. "There needs to be some sort of cost-of-living adjustment."
Some troopers will get additional training so they can, for example, work with a service dog or perform crash reconstruction. But that expertise doesn't mean more compensation.
"You can take on all these additional duties and take on additional liability and additional work, and you get nothing," he says.
Troopers must often remain on call after their already longer-than-usual shifts due to the shortage, but they are only paid $1 an hour to do so.
"On call is a pretty big point of contention because you're essentially chained to your house for eight hours for all of $8," he says. "You can't go to the grocery store, you can't go to your kids' event because you have to respond in roughly 20 to 30 minutes if you get called."
A lot of conversations are happening internally about wanting to create special teams and purchase better equipment, but those pitches get shot down because they don't have the staffing levels, he says. For instance, troopers need better tactical gear.
"We're in Wyoming, where everybody has a hunting rifle," he said. "We come out here in the country, and we have no ability to respond to a threat that's at a distance."
A few weeks from now, the Wyoming Legislature will pass a budget that puts $1.4 billion into savings. Christensen is well aware of that fiscal reality.
Even outside of highway patrol, state employees aren't paid enough and don't have enough governmental support, he says. That's why the roads are continuously closing during storms. The snowplows are broken down and old, and there aren't enough people to operate them.
"It eats itself," he says. "It continually just gets worse."
Christensen finally drives back into Casper's city limits. A man is standing outside of his broken down, beat-up, white pickup, so he stops to assist. The man starts acting erratic and seems displeased that a trooper has shown up.
The man's license is suspended, and he has an active warrant. He's had several DUIs and needs an interlock device that requires him to prove he isn't drunk by blowing into a tube. The requirement doesn't expire until 2098, but the truck lacks the device.
"He admitted to me that he uses methamphetamine, but he says he hasn't used since July," Christensen said. "I don't believe that at all."
Many people get "really frustrated" with criminal proceedings in Wyoming, which is unfortunately "a very DUI-tolerant state," he says. If you compare it to the nation as a whole, the state has very minimal punishments for DUI and alcohol abuse.
"You know, you see a crash, oh look, this is a third time arresting this guy for a DUI, and now he's finally hurt somebody because we can't charge this," Christensen says.
Christensen is back in his vehicle a few minutes later when an unusual call comes in from dispatch in Cheyenne.
"We will be evacuating the building due to a bomb threat," the dispatcher says before signing off. "Thank you."
Christensen is on his own.
"We're gonna have to let him go," he says of the man in the pickup. "He's going to get a couple tickets, and we're going to move on with our night."
Christensen is now using his portable local radio and car radio to run his own dispatch. It's almost his 14th hour on the clock.
"So, I'm going to be covering all of District Two off my car basically," he says. "It's basically a mess."
Normally, his shift would be ending soon. After about 20 minutes Christensen heads back towards district headquarters but spots a car speeding through Casper at 24 mph over the limit. It's a teenage girl.
On top of everything else, he isn't able to run her ID through the computer.
"And I can't get license returns. We'll just add to the night. The system is down," he says.
He has no choice but to let her go.
Christensen pulls his SUV into the parking lot at the District Two headquarters, which sits between Interstate 25 and the North Platte River. He plans to go inside for the rest of the night and "take on more of an administrative role" running the radios for the district. Dispatch still hasn't returned.
All of a sudden, his car peels out of the lot, and he's out again. There's another call.
"And this is just my Monday. This is the first day of my work week," he laughs. "I love the job. I mean, it is what it is. It's part of the fun."
NEXT: Navigating the historic staffing and community crisis across law enforcement
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