Fewer Iowa State Patrol troopers means less service to Iowans
Staffing down nearly 10 percent, overtime costs more than doubled since 2011
The Iowa State Patrol has lost nearly 10 percent of its road troopers since fiscal 2011, resulting in substantial reductions in motorist assists, crash investigations and drunken-driving arrests on Iowa’s highways and interstates.
That means if your car breaks down on Interstate 80 or a drunken driver is weaving across rural portions of Interstate 380, your call for help may go unanswered. It also forces law enforcement officers to go into potentially dangerous situations alone because the nearest trooper is hours away.
“That’s definitely a frustrating aspect of our job because we’re so short-staffed,” said Trooper Tyler Bird, who works in the Patrol’s Cedar Rapids post covering Linn, Johnson, Iowa, Benton, Poweshiek and Tama counties. “It can be unnerving if your backup is so far away. We’ve all been in situations where it takes a while to get where we need to be.”
The Iowa State Patrol’s budget has grown by nearly $12 million since fiscal 2011, when former Gov. Terry Branstad took office for the second time. But the agency’s fiscal 2017 budget was $60.3 million — less than it was the two previous years — which has made it difficult to replace retiring troopers.
The patrol went from 296 road troopers, distinguished from sworn officers, not all of whom are on the road, in fiscal 2011 to 267 last year, a Gazette analysis shows. As troopers were lost, service to Iowans declined. From fiscal 2011 to 2017:
• Motorist assists fell by more than 60 percent from 22,345 to 8,854.
• Drunken-driving arrests went down 37.6 percent from 2,328 to 1,452.
• Troopers stopped 9.4 percent fewer vehicles from 225,259 to 204,026.
Additionally, troopers covered fewer miles in recent years, dropping from 10.2 million in fiscal 2013 to 9.7 million last year, and investigated 300 fewer crashes in fiscal 2017 than in the previous year.
As the Iowa State Patrol is asked to handle more special events, such as college football games, political events and the Iowa State Fair, overtime costs for the agency have more than doubled from $872,231 in fiscal 2011 to nearly $1.9 million last year.
The State Patrol is expected to graduate 18 new troopers from its 20-week academy in October, according to ISP Col. Jeff Ritzman. This is a relief after 2009, 2010 and 2016, when no new officers were hired by the Department of Public Safety, which includes the State Patrol.
Public Safety Lobbyist Amber Markham said the agency expects a “wave of retirements” in coming years as 15 to 20 troopers become eligible for retirement each year for the next decade. But whether there will be money to replace these officers and pay the estimated $168,000 each to equip them is an open question.
“The governor will work closely with the public safety commissioner and the legislature to ensure the state’s law enforcement agencies continue receiving the resources they need to protect public safety while being mindful of the responsibility to Iowa taxpayers and maintaining a balanced budget,” Brenna Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, said in an email to The Gazette.
Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, has fought for increased funding for the patrol because of his concern there are too few troopers on the road. The patrol once had 455 sworn officers, but the number has steadily fallen. Worthan would like to see the number increase to 400, more or less.
“Adding the new troopers won’t increase trooper numbers. It will just help maintain the status quo,” Worthan said.
“This time of year, you throw in some vacations and we’re really struggling to put people out there on the road,” he said. At the current staffing level, there are times of the day when a trooper’s nearest backup could be 100 miles away.”
Patrol stretched thin
Bird, the Eastern Iowa trooper, was working overnight Aug. 27, when at 1:30 a.m. the radio dispatcher announced multiple shots had been fired in downtown Iowa City as up to 1,000 young people spilled out of nearby bars and restaurants.
“When you have that many people in one location with bullets flying, it’s not a good situation,” Bird said.
He hustled 28 miles from Williamsburg to Iowa City to help the Iowa City Police, who asked Bird to monitor, and later transport, witnesses rounded up after the shooting in which one man was killed and two others were injured.
Helping other law enforcement agencies is part of the State Patrol’s mission, but the Iowa City assist left Corridor highways largely vacant because Bird was the only overnight trooper, he said.
Sparse oversight of Iowa’s highways puts some drivers at liberty to floor it.
“Last week a State Trooper stopped a vehicle at the blazing speed of 144 mph on Interstate 80 during the midnight shift,” the patrol posted on Facebook May 16. “A dark, open road is no excuse for high speed.”
Dozens of comments below the post expressed shock at the risk this driver was taking, especially if he lost control of the vehicle and hit another car. But triple-digit speeding isn’t rare; the state patrol posted a half-dozen similar posts over the summer. And not every extreme speeder gets caught.
“If I can’t get to him, I’ll look to see if there’s a deputy who is close,” Bird said. “A lot of times there’s no one to pass it on to.”
Social media also is a place Iowans vent frustration with the patrol’s limitations.
“My son had a blowout on his semi on I-35 a year ago or so and he asked the trooper to stay and run his lights to move traffic over and the trooper basically said to [sic] bad so sad and drove off,” a woman posted in July.
In March, a man congratulated Ritzman for becoming a colonel, but issued a challenge. “Let’s see what we can do to strengthen your numbers. They’re just a LOTTA low. Blame the state not you.”
The Iowa State Patrol’s Technical Collision Investigation Unit investigated 150 collisions involving serious injury or death on Iowa’s roadways in fiscal 2016. The patrol has made replacing these specially trained officers a priority — even with budget cuts — but it can take hours to get an investigator to a crash site.
A three-vehicle crash that killed three people and injured eight others on I-80 near Anita in western Iowa in December closed the highway in both directions for several hours as state patrol crash investigators traveled to the scene, said Trooper Alex Dinkla, public information officer for the patrol.
“When we have more fatality crashes, we have to close down the highway and it slows down the general public,” Dinkla said.
As motorist assists by the State Patrol plummeted after budget cuts, Iowa has paid $9.1 million for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Highway Helper program to help stranded motorists. The three-year contract provides for customized pickups to patrol highly-traveled interstates and highways in the Corridor, as well as around Des Moines and Council Bluffs.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies Association, isn’t surprised the State Patrol’s public service stats are down.
“We noticed several years ago a cut in the assistance the State Patrol gives us,” he said. “In fact, when discussing staffing issues internally at Johnson County we try to staff heavily enough that we don’t have to consider whether or not the State Patrol will be able to assist.”
Overtime costs up
Overtime costs for the state patrol went up more than $1 million from fiscal 2011 to 2017, jumping $500,000 in the last year alone.
About 40 percent of the $1.88 million in overtime paid last year was comp time, or vacation time, paid out at time-and-a-half rates to troopers who work more than 40 hours a week.
Troopers are called upon during natural disasters, like the September 2016 flood in Cedar Rapids, where they helped secure checkpoints around the swollen Cedar River. The State Patrol handled security at the National Governors Association meeting held in Des Moines in July 2016 and helped keep the peace at protests of the Dakota Access pipeline.
The rest of the overtime pay, totaling about $1.12 million, was reimbursed by event hosts who contract with the state patrol for security and traffic control. These events are offered to off-duty troopers for overtime pay.
The patrol has been asked to cover an increasing number of entertainment events, such as Iowa State University football games, large concerts and races at the Iowa Speedway in Newton, Dinkla said.
“We’ve been asked to do more because other departments aren’t able to fulfill those commitments,” Dinkla said.
The patrol says no to some events because there aren’t enough off-duty troopers who want the overtime and supervisors can’t afford to shift troopers from short-staffed patrols, Dinkla said. “Always the local district takes priority.”
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