Opinion: Commentary: Virginia State Police Funding

Opinion: Commentary: Virginia State Police Funding

Next year in 2022, the Virginia Department of State Police (VSP) will celebrate its 90th anniversary. A critical agency for public safety in the Commonwealth, over the last several years, the VSP has faced a crisis of workforce shortages due to a decline in new trooper applicants combined with an unprecedented increase in departures of experienced employees. With a vacancy rate approaching 27%, the VSP risks the inability to carry out their mission, to respond to emergencies throughout the Commonwealth, and they cannot adequately compete for applicants who reflect the diversity and culturally responsive values that Virginians expect and deserve.

Over the last several years, trooper applicants have steadily declined for various reasons, from 2,594 applicants in 2017, to 1,556 in 2020, with many of those applicants withdrawing from the initial hiring process. The loss in applicants and a rise in those who withdraw from hiring culminates in a 60% decline in applicants, resulting in the remaining applicant pool being minimally qualified and less educated. The state police rigorously target minority recruitment; however, disparities in compensation when compared with other police forces detracts applicants.

Unfortunately, the State Police operate at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to compensation. The average starting salary for a VSP trooper is just $47,833 statewide — here in Northern Virginia, that figure is adjusted to just under $60,000. These amounts are lower than other jurisdictions. The national average salary for State Police officers is $53,000. Counties such as Henrico and Hanover outside of Richmond pay between $50k and $52k, and Fairfax County Police has starting salaries up to $68,880. In addition, existing experienced law enforcement officers often leave the State Police for higher salaries offered by county police departments.

Not only do the State Police face challenges in recruitment due to compensation, but troopers joining the Virginia State Police cannot be guaranteed they will remain close to home: new troopers can be sent anywhere in the Commonwealth for their first assignments and may need to relocate their families. In addition, troopers are regularly deployed throughout the state for emergency situations, requiring weeks away from home. At local agencies, officers know they will work in their home city or county, and will never be far from home.

To fill in the gaps and to ensure patrol coverage, existing State Police officers must take extra-long shifts, have days off cancelled, and an increased number are deployed to different areas of the state. This has increased overtime costs, as well as put significant strain on current employees who are at risk of burnout, mental health issues, as well a higher propensity to make errors in judgment.

During the recent Special Session, after collaboration between the members in the House and Senate, as well as support from Governor Northam, a compromise was reached to include in the new budget $20 million to the Department of State Police to implement a new compensation plan for sworn, law enforcement positions to address recruitment of new officers, retention of the existing law enforcement workforce, and pay compression among the various levels of the sworn, law enforcement positions in the department. This plan will also provide an educational incentive of 5% annually offered for sworn employees of all ranks with at least an associates’ degree.

In addition, a workforce group will convene to document the current issues that create barriers to the department’s ability to recruit and retain qualified and diverse law enforcement personnel. The study should address issues of pay compression among the various levels of the existing law enforcement workforce, competition with other employers for individuals with the same preferred qualifications and skill sets, and any other circumstances such as the cost of relocation that create barriers to maintaining a diverse, high-quality law enforcement workforce.

As the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Safety, I am pleased that this 90-year-old agency will be utilizing American Rescue Plan Funds (ARPA) to give law enforcement officers a well-deserved raise, and support violence prevention programs to keep our communities safe. Certainly, this $20 million investment pales in comparison to the over $125 million the Department has lost over the last 5 years to turnover and mandatory overtime costs.