Troopers lacking in numbers

Published 3:00 am Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Alabama State Troopers are operating at a “critical stage” due to a lack of funding and manpower, said a local representative.

“We are at a critical stage because we only have a total of 431 troopers for 67 counties,” said Trooper Kevin Cook. “If you want to compare that to an agency, such as Montgomery Police Department, they currently employee 508 employees, 453 of them are in their patrol. The city of Montgomery actually has more patrolmen than we do.”

Cook said the agency has been staffed at 42 percent of capacity, and that poses a safety issue for the motoring public as well as for the patrol officers. For example, he said, some counties that once had upwards of 14 troopers assigned to them now have only three. And some counties have fewer than three. Perry County has no assigned officers.

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“I remember back in 1998 Houston County used to have a total 14 troopers and we only have three now, and the population has grown,” Cook said.

Pike County is one of the many counties within Alabama that has three patrolman, but the county shares troopers with Crenshaw, Butler and Dekalb counties. Cook said the three troopers were responsible for more than 900 square miles of patrolling in Pike County alone.

“People have got to consider that troopers have to have off days, annual leave and stuff like that,” Cook said. “At any given time there could be one trooper out for four counties.”

Cook said the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety conducted a study in 2014 that recommended a minimum of 1,016 troopers, which was far more the 289 troopers available to the state at the time.

At the beginning of 2015, the 12 law enforcement agencies across the state were combined together to form ALEA, which allowed them to move other officers from other divisions to patrolmen roles, Sgt. Jimmy Helms said.

“When the Secretary of Law Enforcement took control on Jan. 1, he was able to reassign 43 troopers from marine police,” Helms said. “We also took troopers that we had in driver’s licenses. We have the bare minimum in driver’s license now, but we reassigned them and put them on highway patrol because we needed them.”

Helms said the department had been able to transfer the officers, which helped tremendously, but Cook said there was still more to be done.

The troopers stand to be hurt or helped dependent upon Gov. Robert Bentley’s tax proposal.

“If you want something then you’re going to have to pay taxes,” Helms said. “While a lot of people see just their own bubble, at some point in time in their lifetime they’re going to need these goods and services and if we don’t have the resources to provide for them, it’ll hurt them.”

While troopers understand the reasoning behind cutting costs and “trimming the fat,” so to speak, Cook said that the department had bit a bullet when dealing with the cutbacks.

“Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet to do what’s necessary I think he’s done a good job trimming the fat, but now I think we’re in a place where he can build on what we do have left and hopefully make us more efficient,” Cook said. “I do that in my own home.”

Approximately 40 percent of all Alabama State Trooper-investigated fatalities are alcohol related. If Senate Bill 44 is passed into law, State Troopers staffing, which is already at a critical stage, would see further cuts resulting in fewer State Troopers patrolling Alabama roadways and more crashes, more injuries and more fatalities.

“When we increased the rates for driver’s licenses, we went up by $12 in Jan.,” Cook said. “We hadn’t had a price increase since 1990. This legislature presented a bill where a north Alabama senator wants us to pay back the money. Three weeks ago the increase was implemented, and since then we have generated over $12.75 million, but he wants us to pay it back. We will have to layoff people, and we’ve had mileage restrictions where we couldn’t’ travel over 150 miles a shift.”

However, Cook said that if Bentley’s proposal were to pass the troopers would be in a considerably better position.

“This department does not generate revenue by writing tickets,” Cook said. “We don’t make money off of tickets. The most money we make is $4 off a seatbelt ticket, and I can’t really say that this department gets it, because it goes back into the general fund. A lot of the revenue goes into the county where the ticket is funded. We are not a self-supporting, self-funding agency.”

Helms echoed Cook’s sentiments reminding the public that goods and services cost money, and with a depleted general fund the troopers were suffering.

“Goods and services cost money,” Helms said. “We do provide a service, granted that service has taken a hit over time considering the number of officers we have. The number of fatalities have gone down, but although the number of fatalities have gone down the number of crashes haven’t.”