2011-03-31 / Local & State

Retirements Could Trigger Trooper Shortage In PA

By Mark Scolforo
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Amid the pain in the budget proposal laid out earlier this month by Gov. Tom Corbett was some good news for the Pennsylvania State Police – a jump in funding from $879 million to $908 million.

At that level, which is a 3.3 percent increase, the department would be able to cover training costs for at least two cadet classes for the state police academy in Hershey, and eventually the salaries and benefits of 237 new troopers. Those positions, along with the current class of 133, are aimed at addressing a large and growing gap between the number of troopers and the agency’s authorized complement.

There are currently 4,279 state troopers, but there are also 398 vacancies, enough to already be having a negative effect on staffing and promotions, according to Lt. Myra Taylor, the department’s spokeswoman.

“What has happened in the last few years is we’ve had to delay some normal practices of promotions (and) specialty position fillings,’’ Taylor said. “We have literally had persons transferred to other assignments hours away from their homes and home stations.’’

Three factors are contributing to the problem: a large cohort of troopers who were all hired about 20 years ago and are starting to retire, the lack of new training academy classes in the 2009- 10 fiscal year, and concerns among the veterans’ ranks that the next union contract may cut retirement health benefits, so it might be better to get out under the current deal.

“If you’re going to lose things for the rest of your life in retirement, then you’re going to have people, if they have their time in, they’re going to leave,’’ said Sgt. Bruce Edwards, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. “There’s a very good chance.’’

Acting commissioner Frank Noonan told state lawmakers last week that by the time the current union contract expires in June 2012, more than 1,200 troopers will be eligible to retire. “I hope we don’t lose them all,’’ he told the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on Corbett’s budget.

Generally speaking, after 20 years on the job, state troopers in Pennsylvania can retire with an annual pension of 50 percent of their highest year’s pay, plus full medical benefits. After 25 years, they get 75 percent of the largest earning year and full medical benefits. State law requires them to retire by age 60.

As it stands now, by 2012 more than 300 troopers currently on active duty will have served at least 25 years. In 1991, the department hired 596, and over four years the total was about 1,500, with classes at the academy as well as at three other locations.

In the past, Edwards said, most troopers have retired by, or shortly after, their 25th year on the job. He passed his 26th anniversary in February, and his 29- person academy class is now down to just five troopers.

“I don’t want to be Chicken Little here, but I could foresee us being in the hole 1,000 troopers if the worstcase scenario happens,’’ said Edwards, who was careful to point out that he is not unhappy with the governor’s proposed funding level.

State police officials can’t simply snap their fingers and hire new troopers to address a manpower shortage, the way a factory might bring in additional people if work picks up.

The recruitment process includes written and oral exams, a polygraph, a review board and a background check conducted by a trooper. The recruits spend six months living on the grounds of the academy, which has a bed capacity of about 212, depending on the male-female ratio of cadets. After that, they spend months paired with a veteran and a year on probation. The washout rate recently has been about 20-25 percent.

The number of troopers who have retired or otherwise left service has averaged about 158 a year since 2006, so even in the best of circumstances the department has a challenge to maintain its complement. During the past eight years under Gov. Ed Rendell, 1,839 people made it through the academy.

The scope of their task is shown in numbers from last year, when troopers made 77,000 arrests and issued 580,000 traffic citations. Also last year, the criminal history bureau fielded 1.2 million background check requests and the DNA lab analyzed samples from nearly 23,000 convicted criminals and more than 1,400 forensic cases.

The agency does not have the luxury of ignoring any call it receives, so a severe dip in the number of troopers will necessarily drive increases in overtime and make it more difficult to respond in a timely fashion.

Adding to the department’s challenges, Noonan said, is the fact that 58 Pennsylvania municipalities eliminated or reduced their police departments over the past three years. Most were in rural areas, where there is no one but state police to pick up the slack.

“We are the ones that have to go in there and do it,’’ he told lawmakers. “But it does stretch us a little thin sometimes.’’

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