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Wyoming Highway Patrol struggles to recruit, retain staff

A police union president says the cost of living is far outpacing wages

Wyoming Highway Patrol recruits

Wyoming Highway Patrol

By Hannah Black
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — With rising cost of living far outpacing state wages, the Wyoming Highway Patrol says it can’t keep up.

In a letter posted Dec. 16 to the organization’s Facebook page, Wyoming Highway Patrol Association President Sgt. Duane Ellis wrote that a failure of the agency — and by extension, the state of Wyoming — to offer competitive compensation had left it without enough qualified applicants and struggling to retain staff.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol Association is a collective of troopers who, in part, advocate for better working conditions for Highway Patrol employees, provide assistance to families of peace officers and provide scholarships to children of employees.

In his letter, Ellis cites an inability to keep up with other law enforcement agencies in terms of pay and benefits, along with more attractive employment in the private sector.

“Relocation allowances, sign-on bonuses, step increases in pay and competitive compensation packages are being offered to get the best applicants for their agency. The Wyoming Highway Patrol is suffering because we don’t offer any of these to our employees!” Ellis wrote. “Many agencies in Wyoming and surrounding states are gaining employees due to the WHP’s inabilities to retain or attract quality candidates. Salaries are well below many local agencies, along with private companies.”

And in a market saturated with open positions, fewer people are pursuing careers in law enforcement.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as popular to be a police officer these days,” Ellis said in a Friday interview. “It’s dangerous, and they see the negative aspects of being a police officer more so than they do the positive.”

At the time the letter was posted, the agency was looking for applicants to fill around 60 open positions: 30 troopers, 15 dispatchers and 15 port of entry officers.

Since then, 10 troopers were hired, but two have already left, Ellis said. The agency is still looking to hire 25 to 30 additional troopers, he said, and still seeking roughly the same number of dispatchers and port of entry officers as when the letter was posted.

From the beginning of 2017 to the end of 2021, the Highway Patrol has hired 113 people. Within that period of time, 44 have resigned or been terminated, Ellis said — a 39% attrition rate.

When fully staffed, the WHP employs 208 sworn members. This does not include the 47 dispatchers who take emergency calls, the 97 port of entry officers who monitor the movements of commercial vehicles across the state or additional civilian members, Ellis wrote.

Because of retirement, seeking law enforcement positions elsewhere or simply getting out of the business, 178 troopers have left the WHP since 2010, according to Ellis’ letter.

How staffing shortages affect WHP employees

Sgt. Jeremy Beck, spokesperson for the Wyoming Highway Patrol, said when he applied for the agency in the early 2000s, “folks were standing in line.”

“And now, it’s kind of flipped,” Beck said. “You don’t have near as many people showing up to test.”

It’s a widespread problem across state agencies, Ellis said — even with some increases in pay for state employees, which must be approved by the Wyoming Legislature, they still can’t keep pace with surrounding states and jobs in the private sector.

“Any pay raise is nice and needed, but it’s still not keeping up with inflation,” he said. During two recent pay raises, WHP employees’ insurance payments and contributions to retirement also went up.

Gov. Mark Gordon pointed out the issue late last year while presenting his 2023-24 biennium budget to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, saying recruitment and retention of state employees was a priority. He proposed an additional $53 million of the $2.3 billion total general fund budget go toward employee compensation.

But the Highway Patrol has fallen so far behind in what it offers that its slice of this money likely won’t be enough. Ellis said a Wyoming Department of Administration and Information study put pay for an incoming trooper at 37% below market level.

“So that makes it really, really hard for us, as an agency, to go out and recruit quality folks,” Ellis said. “I’m not saying that we’re not finding them, but we’re not finding the number of them that we used to.”

Without a wage increase to keep up with the cost of living, Ellis said many WHP employees, including troopers, are struggling. Some currently depend on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to get by.

Since 2015, the state has spent $7 million to train newly hired troopers, along with additional funds to hire and train dispatchers and port of entry officers, which have also been experiencing “drastic hiring shortfalls and departures from employment with the agency.”

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“Wyoming taxpayers are footing the bill to continually train troopers, dispatchers and port of entry officers in order for them to go to other agencies or private business,” Ellis wrote.

It takes a year to fully train a trooper, and about $115,000 to train each one. Ellis said this number includes a recruit’s benefits, along with the cost of putting them through basic trooper training, but it doesn’t include their vehicle and additional needed equipment.

For existing employees, “training is often denied, and there is little financial incentive to promote from within” because of a lack of funding and insufficient staff, according to a recruitment video posted alongside the Dec. 16 letter.

As in most industries, Ellis said staffing shortages have caused increased burnout among employees, reduced trooper availability in communities across the state, and made solo shifts for troopers more common — a statistically more dangerous practice.

Just three troopers make up Troop L, which covers Gillette and the surrounding area. Each of the three typically work alone, with their closest backup having to come from Wright or from the Gillette Police Department.

Predictably, the lack of troopers also affects response times, as fewer troopers covering the state means a longer wait.

Beck said that, in some areas, lieutenants and captains are covering patrol shifts.

“We’re all trying to step up,” he said. “We’re going to have troopers that respond and conduct business professionally. Courtesy is going to be our priority. They’re going to take care of business in a professional manner and always be there for the motoring public when it comes to Wyoming.”

At the end of the letter, Ellis asks the public to support wage increases and competitive pay for employees.

“Wyoming simply cannot afford to continue losing these vital public servants,” he wrote.

(c)2022 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)