08/28/2007

Fla. troopers leaving in droves

By Martin E. Comas
The Orlando Sentinel

FLORIDA Longtime Florida Highway Patrol troopers continue to leave the agency in droves for higher-paying jobs as police officers, deputy sheriffs and even federal air marshals.

Many of these state troopers say they loved their jobs patrolling the state's highways and roads. But an outdated salary structure has frustrated veteran troopers, who often earn only a few thousand dollars a year more than raw new recruits.

FHP officials say the exodus of rank-and-file veterans has resulted in a current shortage of more than 200 troopers statewide. In Central Florida, there is a shortage of more than two dozen troopers. Officials estimate about 35 percent of troopers leave each year for higher-paying jobs.

Responding to the shortfall, the FHP recently launched recruitment drives targeting universities, community colleges and military veterans. In another effort to stem the tide, the agency now requires new troopers to sign a contract saying they will stay with the FHP for at least two years or pay back some of the money it cost to train them.

"In today's world, it is challenging. And it's a problem we're facing," FHP spokesman Maj. Ernesto Duarte said. "There's no magic bullet."

The trooper shortage carries consequences: It means car-accident victims often end up waiting hours for a patrol officer to arrive and take a report.

"On some days, it's crazy. You go from crash to crash to crash -- especially on rainy summer afternoons when we have a lot of wrecks," Trooper Kim Miller said. "It does get frustrating for people waiting, especially when they've had to wait for three or four hours. ... Some people get very upset, which I can understand."

Starting pay for a state trooper today is about $34,000 a year, according to Duarte. Because troopers are state employees, it's the Legislature that budgets money for hiring and raising salaries.

"Year after year, it was empty promises" from the Legislature, said one former trooper, who did not want to be identified because he now works as a federal air marshal. Traveling on flights around the country, he earns about $20,000 more than he was making as a trooper.

"And I'm having a great time," he said.

Across Florida, the patrol had 1,638 sworn officers at the end of July, but is making do with an 11-percent shortfall in troopers. In this area -- including Orange, Seminole, Lake, Brevard, Osceola and Volusia -- there were 219 sworn officers patrolling the roads. The agency is authorized to have 26 more. Statewide, FHP officials say they are authorized to have an additional 208.

It's similar to 2000-01, a recent high watermark for departures, when the agency had more than 160 trooper vacancies with many veterans opting for early retirement.

FHP officials say they need more troopers to cope with a growing population. At the end of 2006, there were 15.7 million licensed drivers in Florida, and about 60 million tourists visit every year. Last year, troopers wrote more than 1 million citations, responded to more than 254,500 crashes and arrested almost 11,500 drivers on suspicion of DUI.

"Those are numbers that do concern us," Duarte said.

So does trooper pay.

"We're working closely with the Legislature on this," Duarte said about supplementing trooper salaries. "But we recognize that the state is going through some challenging times. . . . In today's world, there are issues like reducing property taxes, [homeowners] insurance, gasoline prices. It affects everyone, including members of the FHP."

FHP officials plan to urge state lawmakers to adopt a salary plan in which veteran troopers are awarded $500 per year for up to 10 years or $5,000.

It costs $75,000 to $80,000 to train and equip each new recruit. But new troopers often would flee to other law-enforcement agencies soon after they were trained. To prevent that from happening, the agency instituted the two-year contract.

Trooper disenchantment with pay is a chronic problem.

The Orlando Police Department, for example, pays its starting officers about $42,300 a year, according to Officer Jim Young, a department spokesman. Young said many new recruits served two to five years with the FHP before becoming Orlando officers.

"I would say pay is probably the biggest reason," Young said. He added many troopers also want to work in different areas of law enforcement, such as bike patrol and murder investigations.

Jim Whitman left the FHP in 2004 after almost 10 years. His salary at the time was about $32,000. But when he joined the Winter Park Police Department, his pay jumped by more than $5,000.

"I was training officers that were making the same as I was, and that was frustrating," Whitman said.

Copyright 2007 Sentinel Communications Co.

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