Last July, when Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the state legislature to deal with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he also called for criminal justice reform in the wake of the murder-by-cop of George Floyd in Minneapolis as state lawmakers were pressured to defund the police.
A year later, Northam is again calling the General Assembly into special session on Aug. 2 to allocate $4.3 in federal stimulus funding. But this time, they’re being asked to increase the Virginia State Police’s budget by $18.6 million.
The extra money would provide pay raises to “position us squarely within the range of the compensation packages being offered by many competing agencies,” according to VSP Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle.
Settle says VSP is facing “a critical workforce shortage … with a vacancy rate approaching 27 percent” of sworn, front-line troopers. “We can no longer carry out portions of our mission, our ability to respond to emergencies throughout the commonwealth is imperiled, and we cannot compete for applicants who reflect the diversity and culturally responsive values that Virginians deserve,” he pointed out.
There were 316 vacancies on the State Police force as of April. As of July 8, that number is 334. Col. Settle noted that VSP’s vacancy rate is not a direct result of last year’s defund the police movement, but “stems from a years-long decline in trooper applicants combined with an unprecedented increase in departures of experienced employees.”
In short, the department can’t hire enough new troopers to replace those who are leaving the force.
The number of trooper applicants decreased dramatically from 2,594 in 2017 to just 1,556 in 2020 – a 47 percent decline. Of those applicants, 75 percent voluntarily dropped out of consideration in 2017 when they learned what the job entailed. In 2019, the percentage of dropouts increased to 84 percent.
Of the 258 applicants who remained in 2019, the majority either failed their physical or written tests, were disqualified due to a prior felony, or did not have a college degree. And these less-qualified candidates “struggle …. to meet certification standards,” Settle says.
It costs Virginia taxpayers $108,260 to train just one new state trooper. Their average annual pay is $56,691, which is lower than that offered by many local police and sheriff’s offices in the commonwealth.
Settle calculated that candidates who failed to pass the academy or left VSP before full retirement age resulted in a net loss of $68.7 million over the last five years. That puts the $18.6 million he is requesting in proper context.
Because of the large number of vacancies, state troopers are facing mandatory overtime, cancelled days off, and longer than optimal deployments.
“The result,” Settle says, “is a higher propensity to errors in judgment and professional lapses”—exactly what the General Assembly should be trying to avoid just as calls to the VSP for medical, search and rescue, and tactical assistance as well as help quelling civil disturbances are increasing.
During emergencies, most Virginians take the services of the State Police for granted. They shouldn’t. Policing is always a tough, dangerous and emotionally draining job. Add long hours, relatively low pay and all the anti-police rhetoric out there, and an already hard job has become even harder.
Which is why experienced troopers are leaving the force and fewer and fewer qualified young people are willing to take their places.
There’s no guarantee that merely raising trooper pay will reduce or eliminate the VSP’s alarming vacancy rate, but state lawmakers should ignore the background noise and at least give it a try.
The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star