By Claire Withycombe
OLYMPIA – State lawmakers are looking for ways to recruit and retain state troopers as Washington struggles with a high number of traffic fatalities.
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 patrolling 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 trained law enforcement officers.
The Legislature passed measures this year to entice more people to join the force, but lawmakers also want to entice more experienced troopers nearing retirement to stay. The percentage of soldiers eligible for retirement is poised to increase over the next few years.
In early June, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and three other members of the state Transportation Committee asked a state committee on public pension policy to look into ways to sweeten troopers’ retirement benefits.
“It will take us some time to add back troopers to get back to full strength,” Liias said. “If we can slow the rate at which we’re losing troopers to retirement while we’re adding on, it kind of gives us that bridge to the new force in the future.”
Recruitment and retention have been high priorities for the agency for several years, WSP Chief John Batiste told members of the state pension committee Tuesday. He described the past three years as “pretty hectic.”
“With the fallout from the George Floyd situation, many soldiers have chosen to step forward alongside law enforcement across the country,” Batiste said. “We are suffering. The nation is suffering, quite frankly, in terms of 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 did not get the vaccine. (Governor Jay Inslee repealed the mandate on May 10.)
Batiste said the State Patrol was “competing for the small pool of qualified applicants” and said the agency needed to address the issue of retaining senior staff.
“There’s no substitute for experienced people,” Batiste told the pension committee Tuesday, “and so we want to do everything we can, with your help, to retain those people.”
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 pension-eligible workers, pension enhancements after 20 or 25 years of service and allowing soldiers to retire but then work for the agency again while also collecting their pension — something other state pension 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 already at the age of 55 after five years of service in the agency.
Batiste said the agency recruits heavily from the military and he would like to see some incentives previously offered to veterans restored.
For example, the state offered those who served honorably in the military before or during their employment with WSP a credit for additional money upon retirement. That was removed when the state created the second generation of its State Patrol pension plan in 2003 — so troopers hired after that date are not eligible for it.
The State Patrol has dealt with troop shortages in the past. In 2015, 44 troopers resigned, many lured by better pay in other police departments, according to the State Patrol. The next year, state lawmakers raised the soldiers’ pay by 5%.
Since then, lawmakers have taken other steps to entice soldiers to join and stay with 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 entire nine-month training academy, the State Patrol can now offer “accelerated” training for new recruits coming from other police departments, thanks to House Bill 1638.
The agency plans to offer the first accelerated training program in early 2024, WSP spokesman 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 recruits from other police departments will receive an $8,000 bonus when they complete their training program, $6,000 after a year of probation 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 about $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 eligible for a $5,000 bonus upon graduation from the Washington State Patrol training academy and an additional $5,000 after a one-year probationary period.
“We can and will do other things to address security challenges when soldiers are not available,” Liias said. But he said having troopers on the road doing “high visibility” patrols can remind drivers that the laws against speeding, distracted driving and not wearing seat belts will be enforced.
He also emphasized that the state is “furiously recruiting new and diverse applicants” for the State Patrol.
“And in my mind, it’s really important to change the culture, make sure there’s a real focus on diversity, equality, inclusion to build a robust, sustainable force into the future so that people really feel connected to the community and represent the community,” he said.
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