Wash. state lawmakers eyeing solutions to tackle trooper shortage amid soaring traffic deaths
Lawmakers are looking at ways to sweeten troopers' retirement benefits, as well as trying to coax more experienced troopers near retirement to stay
By Claire Withycombe
The Seattle Times
OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are eyeing ways to recruit and retain state troopers as Washington contends with a high number of traffic deaths.
Right now, 146 out of 684, or 21%, of trooper positions are vacant, according to the Washington State Patrol.
The State Patrol is best known for keeping watch on the state's highways and enforcing traffic laws, but the agency also conducts criminal investigations and drug and forensic testing. About half of its 2,200 employees are commissioned law enforcement officers.
The Legislature passed measures this year to entice more people to join the force, but lawmakers also want to coax more experienced troopers near retirement to stay. The share of troopers eligible for retirement is poised to climb over the next few years.
In early June, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and three other members of the state's transportation committee asked a state committee on public pension policy to take a closer look at ways to sweeten troopers' retirement benefits.
"It's going to take us some time to add troopers back to get back to that full contingent," Liias said. "If we can slow the pace that we're losing troopers to retirement while we're adding on, it kind of gives us that bridge to that new force of the future."
Recruitment and retention have been high priorities for the agency for several years, WSP Chief John Batiste told members of that state pension committee Tuesday. He described the past three years as "pretty hectic."
"With the fallout from the George Floyd situation, many troopers have elected to move on, along with law enforcement officers across the country," Batiste said. "We're suffering. The nation is suffering, quite frankly, with regards to its ability to attract recruits and also to retain its senior personnel."
Many officers also left the agency as a result of a requirement that state workers be vaccinated against COVID-19: in 2021, 74 were let go from the Washington State Patrol because they didn't get the vaccine. (Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the mandate May 10.)
Batiste said that the State Patrol was "competing for that small pool of qualified applicants" and said the agency had to address the issue of retaining senior personnel.
"There is no substitute for experienced individuals," Batiste told the pension committee Tuesday, "and so we'd like to do everything we can, with your help, to retain those folks."
This year, 45 of the agency's commissioned law enforcement officers are eligible to retire. That number will rise to 69 in 2024, 94 in 2025, and 108 in 2026.
Lawmakers have asked the committee on public pension policy to evaluate the benefits and costs of several policy options. They include offering a retention bonus to retirement-eligible workers, pension improvements after 20 or 25 years of work and allowing troopers to retire but then work for the agency again while also collecting their pension — something other state retirement plans allow.
Lawmakers could act as soon as the next legislative session in 2024.
State troopers face a mandatory retirement age of 65, except for the chief. They can also retire after 25 years of service, meaning that if they started in their early 20s, they could retire as early as their mid-forties. And they can retire as early as 55 after five years of service to the agency.
Batiste said the agency recruits heavily from the military and that he'd like to see some incentives previously offered to veterans restored.
For instance, the state offered those who honorably served in the military before or during their employment with WSP a credit for additional money in retirement. That was removed when the state created the second generation of its retirement plan for the State Patrol in 2003 — so troopers hired after that date aren't eligible for it.
The State Patrol has dealt with trooper shortages before. In 2015, 44 troopers resigned, many lured by better pay at other police departments, according to the State Patrol. The next year, state lawmakers raised troopers' pay 5%.
Since then, legislators have taken other steps to entice troopers to join and stay at the agency, and they acted again this year to try to encourage more people to join the force.
While recruits new to the profession must go through the full nine-month training academy, the State Patrol can now offer "accelerated" training for new employees coming from other police departments, thanks to House Bill 1638.
The agency is planning to offer the first expedited training program in early 2024, WSP Spokesperson Chris Loftis said in an email. It is expected to last eight weeks, with an additional two weeks at the beginning for out-of-state hires.
New employees from other police departments will receive an $8,000 bonus after they finish their training program, $6,000 after a year probation period and another $6,000 after the second year, Loftis said.
A cadet — someone who has been hired to be a trooper but is preparing to go through the training academy or is in training — makes $5,300 a month or roughly $63,000 a year, according to the State Patrol. A starting state trooper makes about $75,000 a year, while a trooper with five or more years of experience makes about $104,000 a year.
New cadets are entitled to a $5,000 bonus after they finish the Washington State Patrol training academy and another $5,000 after a one-year probation period.
"We can and will do other things to address safety challenges when troopers aren't available," Liias said. But he said that having troopers on the road doing "high visibility" patrols can remind drivers that laws against speeding, distracted driving and not wearing seatbelts will be enforced.
He also emphasized that the state is "furiously recruiting new and diverse applicants" to the State Patrol.
"And in my mind, changing the culture, ensuring that there's a real focus on diversity, equity, inclusion is really important to building a resilient, sustainable force into the future so that folks really feel connected to community and are representing the community," he said.
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