Sgt. Maurice Raines, post commander of Georgia State Patrol Post 2, sits in his car monitoring I-85 in LaGrange on a weekday in April. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Fewer troopers patrol Georgia’s highways, interstates

The Georgia State Patrol is unable to respond to thousands of wrecks each year because the agency doesn’t have enough troopers, state documents show.

The shortage is so severe that, in two-thirds of the state, there are not enough troopers to patrol the roads 24 hours a day. That level of staffing — 24 hours a day, every day — is policy for the state’s leading traffic enforcer.

Col. Mark McDonough, head of the State Patrol, cited high turnover, low pay and decreasing interest in joining the Patrol as reasons for the shortfall: the agency is budgeted for a total 953 positions but had 789 employees at the end of April. He also said the dropout rate at “trooper school” is much higher than it was years ago, when almost every candidate was physically fit and had the disposition that fits well in a paramilitary organization.

“I’ve looked at how kids are raised today when everybody gets a pizza and a trophy for showing up. We’re not in the pizza and trophy department,” McDonough said. “We’re recruiting a smaller number of people, and the folks we are getting is a reflection of our society. That grit from previous generations is not there any more. It’s a job of conflict. It’s a job of confrontation.”

The trooper shortage affects much of rural Georgia, but it also leaves post commanders scrambling in more populous areas as well.

“Sometimes it’s an exercise of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul or addressing an issue in one place where it’s not so prevalent in another,” said McDonough, who is also commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

Capt. Allen Marlow, commander of Troop B, which covers 20 counties in northeast Georgia, said he needs 25 to 30 more troopers to patrol the roads 24 hours a day. Only one car from Troop B is out after midnight every night, concentrating on Interstate 85 as it enters Georgia from South Carolina, Marlow said. The rest of the troop’s territory is uncovered.

“I would say it’s got really bad in the past five or six years,” said Marlow, who has been with the Patrol 24 years.

According to records obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act, troopers assigned to the 20 counties of Troop B worked almost 11,800 crashes, 131 of them with fatalities, and made 1,780 drunken driving arrests last year. At the same time, however, there were not enough troopers to respond to 2,400 reported accidents.

When that happens, the responsibility for handling the wreck devolves to the nearest county sheriff’s office or city police department. Records show waits of 20 minutes to more than an hour in some cases. At times, if the wreck is not particularly serious, drivers simply take off after waiting for a response.

Marlow is one of two troop commanders who track calls that cannot be answered, so he can document his need for additional staff.

'I wish they could get the help they need'

Troop E, a 21-county territory anchored by Rockdale, Walton and Newton Counties in the northeastern corner and Richmond County (Augusta) on the east and stretching into four Middle Georgia counties as well, also keeps track of calls it is unable to answer.

Troop E could not respond to more than 525 accidents in 2014, records show. These records do not indicate the severity of the crashes or whether anyone was injured.

Troopers have the expertise to conduct crash investigations, and they often are called to help with non-traffic related events, like controlling protesters at a recent Ku Klux Klan rally at Stone Mountain.

“It can be a (drain),” said Troup County Sheriff James Woodruff. “I wish they could get the help they need. It would give us the help we need. It makes it that much worse when the State Patrol is short.”

Trooper pay is one obstacle: starting pay is $35,741 per year; top salary for a trooper who patrols is $48,564.

And the high proportion of washouts from the 18-week training program known as “trooper school” are an issue as well. Of 50 recruits who started the current trooper school April 3, only 27 were there when classes resumed Monday morning. Many of those 27 are already promised to areas of the state that see the most accidents, like the one in Villa Rica; the area covered by the post on Interstate 20 near the Alabama line leads the state in accidents.

So while some posts are at or near full strength, the rest of the state has to wait for another trooper school to finish.

'We're definitely understaffed. But we make it happen.'

Troup and Harris Counties typify the State Patrol’s coverage of Georgia.

At any given time, one trooper covers both counties, which lie along a popular route from the metro area to the beaches on the Florida Panhandle.

There is no one working for at least two hours each weekend night or for four hours each weeknight.

“We’re definitely understaffed. But we make it happen,” said Sgt. Maurice Raines, the Post 2 commander, who is over Harris and Troup Counties.

In Patrol Post 2, a trooper is on call between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Monday through Friday and between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on weekends. If there is an accident during those off hours, a dispatcher will roust the on-call trooper.

In the first three months of this year, Raines said there were seven fatal accidents in Harris and Troup Counties, two of which were directly attributed to excessive speed. In all of last year there were 11 fatal accidents in those two counties. In comparison, there were 312 accidents but no fatalities for the same time last year; in all of 2015 there were 11 fatal accidents in Troup and Harris Counties.

The highways are then left more dangerous, McDonough conceded, as speeds increase along with instances of road rage.

“A lot of the anger and lot of the frustration is… showing up,” he said.

But a sedan with lights on the roof, “even for a short time curbs that behavior.”

Police pay comparison

Law enforcement officers often cite as the reason to change agencies. Here is a sampling of starting and top pay for selected police departments and sheriff’s offices.
Georgia State Patrol
$35,741
$48,564
Atlanta Police Department
$38,355
$63,148
DeKalb County Police Department
$37,584
$61,080
Paulding County Sheriff's Office
$35,140
$53,224
Putnam County Sheriff's Office
$28,433
$41,766
Troup County Sheriff's Office
$28,246
$43,534
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