Drunks weaving in and out of lanes on highways. Drivers texting and paying little attention to the road. Cars drag racing at high speed.
And white-knuckled, frustrated motorists who ask: Why don’t we see Florida Highway Patrol troopers stopping these people?
Answer: Because there are not as many as there should be on our state roadways.
FHP is struggling with chronic manpower shortages and high turnover because Florida troopers’ pay ranks dead last in the nation. The ripple effect is being felt by drivers who rarely observe troopers on patrol and must wait longer for a response if they are involved in a crash.
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The FHP is currently operating with 201 vacancies in a workforce that is supposed to be 1,946 at full capacity.
Starting salary for a Florida rookie trooper is $33,977 — the lowest among the 49 states that have a state patrol. (Hawaii does not.)
California’s starting troopers earn the highest starting wage, at $74,700. In Texas, it’s $73,000. In Alabama, at No. 48, it’s $35,590.
“They are in a dire situation and it’s a disgrace,” said Charles Miller, a retired Miami-Dade police officer who worked as an auxiliary FHP trooper for the final three years of his 37-year career. “Where are the troopers? You can drive a considerable distance and never see one. There’s extreme speeding and more and more horrific crashes. It’s a demanding job and they often have no backup. It’s a shame for the men and women who put their lives on the line for Floridians.”
Of the 226 law enforcement agencies in Florida, the highway patrol ranks 174th in starting salary, according to an Office of the Inspector General report. That puts FHP ahead of such small towns as Chipley and Chattahoochee, but far behind Miami-Dade County ($54,090), Broward County ($47,482), Palm Beach County ($51,312) and such local cities as Pinecrest, which ranked No. 1 at $64,708 and Lighthouse Point ($60,000), Boca Raton and Sunrise ($57,000), Miami Shores ($54,038), Miami Gardens ($47,800) and Miami ($45,929).
FHP is battling an 8.83 percent turnover rate. Plus, the academy that would typically have 80 recruits per class currently has only 25. Sixty-three recent graduates are in field training.
“Due to attrition and retirements, the FHP has experienced a steady shortage of sworn members over the past few years,” said FHP Capt. Jeffrey Bissainthe. “FHP uses a proven staffing model to determine minimum staffing requirements for each of the FHP troops, but when there are fewer troopers on the road, it may mean a slower response time for drivers involved in a crash or disabled motorists who are stranded on the side of the road.”
Higher pay in other states and municipalities is luring Florida troopers away, said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
“We think salaries should be in the mid-40s in order to be competitive,” he said.
Drivers have reason to worry. Compare data from 2011 to 2016. The number of licensed drivers in Florida has increased by 1 million during that time and the number of annual crashes has increased from 229,000 to 395,000. Yet the number of traffic citations issued by the FHP has decreased, from 947,000 to 742,000. Speeding tickets are down 18 percent. Response time should be 30 minutes or less, but has increased. As a consequence of lower trooper numbers, local police and sheriff’s officers are working more crashes on state roads — almost 50 percent of accidents statewide.
“It used to be if I needed help from a trooper late at night, I could count on a quick response,” said Miller, the ex-Miami-Dade captain who often found that during the three years he patrolled for the FHP he would be the only trooper on duty in the entire north end of Miami-Dade County. “They used to be our pursuit cars on a robbery. They don’t do that anymore. There can be a major rollover wreck on I-95 and no trooper available.”
DUI arrests can take two hours or more to process, which further exacerbates troopers’ lack of presence on the road.
Some relief is on the way. Included in the state budget passed by the Florida Legislature and awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature is a pay increase, to $36,223 for starting salaries, and a 5 percent raise for all state law enforcement officers. The PBA had lobbied for a $10,000 across the board raise and incentives or a step pay plan that would reward troopers for longevity.
“If you hit certain benchmarks, you should earn increases in pay,” Puckett said. “We will have to revive bills on career development. People are happy with the 5 percent raise but we need to deal with the retention problem.”