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W.Va. suffering from trooper shortage, especially in Eastern Panhandle

Troop 2's six detachments have not been fully staffed since April 2005

July 23, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The Martinsburg detachment of the West Virginia State Police is only “a few vacancies away” from being unable to provide 24/7 service, State Police Capt. Rob Blair said Tuesday.

“That is simply not acceptable in a county as populated and busy as Berkeley County,” Blair said in an email when contacted about a reported statewide trooper shortage.

“With the strains of day-to-day police matters and then throw in the recent issues we have had to deal with on Interstate 81 — (the) construction zone and traffic crashes causing major delays — it becomes quite overwhelming at times,” Blair said.

Troop 2’s six detachments have not been fully staffed since Blair became the troop’s commander in April 2005. The Martinsburg detachment is the only one in Troop 2 in which  troopers are working 24 hours a day, Blair said.

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With a total of 698 troopers statewide, state police Superintendent Col. Jay Smithers said this week the agency needs an additional 275 troopers.

“Truly, we are in the crossroads of our agency,” Smithers said. “We are the premier law enforcement agency. We take pride in ourselves in getting the job done.”

Media outlets in Charleston, W.Va., reported that Smithers and Lt. Reggie Patterson, the agency’s recruitment coordinator, discussed the agency’s staffing needs Monday during a legislative interim meeting.

Smithers told lawmakers that 22 of the state police’s 60 detachments are manned by four or fewer troopers.

Thirty-six positions funded by the Legislature are vacant. Smithers said at least 10 troopers could retire in December.

Blair said he is one of the 10.

And without a cost-of-living adjustment, Blair said he cannot attract officers who can afford to “settle down” in Troop 2, especially in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

“The Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands regions are great locations; it’s just more expensive to purchase a home and/or property than other locations within (the state),” Blair said.

And unlike other parts of the state, Blair said Troop 2’s area is unique in that its population has exploded without a corresponding increase in troopers to meet the additional strains placed on a community due to the growth.

The state police’s Crimes Against Children Unit, which has about 16 officers, is “extremely understaffed,” according to Smithers.

“They’re overwhelmed with work. As we speak, we have a 100 percent conviction rate. That tells me we are just shooting fish in a barrel. We work the cases we know we can grab and work from A to Z and get them through the system and move on to the next,” he said.

The agency could target, recruit and train classes of 50 troopers annually if it had sufficient funding, Smithers said.

“If we knew that that funding was available over the course of the next five years to the point where we could go out and target people in our areas of need, it would be a simple process,” Smithers said.

Patterson said he is trying to recruit more minority candidates. But finding and retaining talent is a challenge because of money and other issues.

Patterson said the agency has 12 black male troopers, one black female trooper, 18 white female troopers, five Hispanic male troopers and one Hispanic female trooper.

He said that there are misperceptions about law enforcement in general, and a general lack of knowledge about what troopers do. There also are difficulties enticing candidates to go to places in need, such as McDowell County.

Recently, 53 people were vetted and ready to take the class needed to become troopers. But the class was delayed because of funding constraints, he said.

Blair said he believes the general public may have a false perception that the state police has unlimited resources and manpower.

More than 50 percent of Troop 2’s vehicle fleet has 90,000-plus miles and is getting worse by the day, Blair said.

“The citizens are blessed to have such outstanding dedicated troopers within Troop 2,” Blair said. “No matter what they are faced with, they always get the job done.

“I think it would be nice if our elected officials recognized this and worked hard to get us some help in terms of manpower and funding for future manpower.”

Blair said the lack of a competitive wage for civilian staff also has hindered the troop from being able to fill a vacant mechanic position, and he noted dispatchers seem to be leaving every month or so.

“We recently finally gave in and closed our dispatching services in Charles Town and now dispatch all Troop 2 communication through Romney (W.Va.),” Blair said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
 

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