ST. JOSEPH — A lack of troopers is forcing Missouri State Highway Patrol offices across the state to use high-ranking officers on patrol duty and disband some special operations teams.
The patrol blames the shortage on the lagging economy, relatively low pay for troopers, a lack of recruits and losing some troopers to military duty.
Troop H headquarters in St. Joseph, for example, is short 16 officers from its allotment of 78 — the lowest staff number in almost two decades.
“I’ve been a trooper for 18 years, and I can’t remember us ever being this short-staffed,” said Sgt. Sheldon Lyon, a Troop H spokesman.
The troop, which patrols northwest Missouri, has closed its two-man criminal interdiction team and commissioned three specialists to help with patrol duties.
Similar actions have been necessary across the state, said Lt. Tim Hull, a spokesman at patrol headquarters in Jefferson City. He said the patrol is authorized to have 1,012 troopers statewide; is currently budgeted for 987 troopers and had 946 on the payroll as of Jan. 15.
Another 94 officers are assigned to the state’s gaming division, which oversees the state’s gambling casinos.
“It’s one of those things that’s been building the last couple of years,” Hull said. “With the economy down and no light in sight, some officers are finding alternatives or even taking on secondary employment.”
Hull said the patrol has a difficult time competing with other law enforcement agencies that offer higher pay and benefits. And, he said, some troopers even turn down promotions because the resulting low pay raise “doesn’t make it worth it to move to another county, get another house, force the wife to get another job.”
Lyon said the patrol also is having trouble finding enough people to fill its 60-person classes at the patrol’s training academy. This year’s training class has less than 30 enrollees.
Troop H currently has four troopers on military leave, and the remaining 12 positions are empty because of troopers resigning or transferring to other divisions.
The criminal interdiction team that was disbanded was responsible for investigating criminal activities along the region’s highways and aiding a regional task force that helps area law enforcement in criminal investigations.
At headquarters throughout the state, all officers — including public relations officers and higher-ranking specialists — are helping with patrol duties.
“A lot of people are wearing a lot of different hats right now,” Hull said.
The patrol is trying to maintain its service to the public, but it is likely that it will take troopers longer to respond to some calls, Hull said, because troopers are putting more emphasis on the priority of the calls. For example, an accident involving injuries will get a faster response than one involving no injuries, even if the trooper is closer to the latter call.
“We don’t have the number of officers to respond to every situation,” he said. “The most serious will go first, and then we go down the list as the officer has time, or as officers coming on duty become available.”