Cheating scandal costs 30 state troopers their jobs

106th Trooper Class for the Georgia State Patrol (Credit: Georgia State Patrol)

106th Trooper Class for the Georgia State Patrol (Credit: Georgia State Patrol)

Thirty state troopers were fired Wednesday after a months-long investigation confirmed allegations of widespread cheating at the Georgia State Patrol training academy.

“It’s a punch in the gut,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Col. Mark W. McDonough told reporters. “This goes to our very core values.”

The terminations will have a widespread and immediate impact. An already understaffed, and graying, agency will have to scramble to cover the sudden loss of four percent of its workforce, with the next round of trooper trainees still months away from graduation. The GSP is now down to roughly 800 employees, well short of its budgeted workforce.

A 2016 investigation found the state’s primary traffic enforcement agency was so understaffed it lacked enough troopers to patrol the roads around the clock in two-thirds of the state. The shortfall made it impossible for the GSP to respond to thousands of wrecks each year, state documents revealed.

Just last year the state patrol was pushing to hire 100 new officers.

“It does have an impact on public safety,” McDonough said.

A select few motorists, however, will benefit from the scandal. Courts are all but certain to toss out the 133 speeding tickets issued by the fired troopers, all part of the GSP’s 106th class assigned to 52 patrol posts around the state.

The wide-ranging internal investigation was prompted by a tip from a woman once involved with one of the fired troopers. McDonough said she had actually completed her friend’s online training.

“She’d be POST (Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council) certified to run radar,” said McDonough, adding it wasn’t clear why the unidentified whistleblower came forward.

Her claims were explosive. She alleged every cadet in the 106th Georgia State Patrol trooper class had cheated on speed detection exams. An internal probe, launched in October, confirmed the allegation.

Eventually, all members of the class, which graduated last August, admitted they had gamed the system, one McDonough said lacked the proper supervision that might’ve prevented the cheating.

In one instance, a training instructor printed a make-up exam for cadets who failed it the first time. They were allowed to take the test at home and turn it in the following day. McDonough said cadets had also found questions and answers from the test online.

They used messaging apps such as Snapchat to exchange information, even as they tried to get their stories straight once the investigation into their conduct began.

McDonough said he has asked POST to conduct a thorough audit of the GSP’s training system.

A lack of supervision, and a concern over the difficulty of the exam, likely led the cadets to cheat, the commissioner said.

Becoming a trooper isn’t easy.

In 2016 the AJC reported that, of 2,738 people who applied for the job in the previous year, only 485 made it through that initial evaluation, the records show. Half of those applicants were disqualified after failing the criminal background check. Another 25 percent couldn’t meet the fitness requirements. That left only 42 applicants, 12 of whom didn’t make it out of the 20-week trooper academy.

“A lot check out because they are not physically fit to continue,” Capt. Scott Woodell, the director of the Georgia State Patrol’s academy in Forsyth, said at the time. “They didn’t take us seriously. They don’t have the heart and they just quit.”

Filling those vacant positions persists even after a 20 percent pay raise was enacted in 2017. The shortage has led to an increase in crashes, distracted drivers and speeding over the last five years, according to the GSP.

Now, the agency must deal with a credibility crisis, McDonough said.

“Our whole mode is to produce an officer that the public can trust,” he said. “When a person is pulled over, and when they’re given a speeding citation, they should feel the training the person received, and their performance on exams, has been done without cheating.”

Troopers fired

Thirty of the 33 troopers from the Georgia State Patrol’s 106th Class were fired Wednesday morning. Since graduation, one trooper resigned, one trooper was previously dismissed and another is on military leave.

That leaves the GSP with about 800 employees, well short of the 954 positions budgeted.

The next class of recruits is scheduled to finish the training academy in May.