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In Kansas, Law Enforcement Is Shrinking And There Are A Lot Of Reasons Why

Sam Zeff

We’ve heard a lot about problems funding education and roads in Kansas because of poor tax revenues — but we can add another problem to that list: state law enforcement agencies.

There are shortages everywhere.

In the past 10 years, as the population of Kansas has grown about 6 percent, the number of police officers has stayed about the same, right at 7,000.

Dwindling law enforcement

At the state level, there are also problems. In the past decade, the number of agents at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has dropped and the number of openings for guards at state prisons has skyrocketed.

But the most visible problem is at the Kansas Highway Patrol. Ten years ago there were 526 troopers on Kansas highways. Today there are about a hundred fewer, which means an already lonely job in many parts of Kansas is a lot lonelier — and more dangerous.

About half the recruits wash out of every class. Becoming a trooper takes more training than most police academies — think more like boot camp.

Thirty-five recruits were there for day one in July. The Patrol expects 20 to graduate at a ceremony Thursday in Salina.

It is a grueling 23-week course. The recruits stay on the academy campus and the physical training is non-stop.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Kansas Highway Patrol recruits practice controlling suspects. The class will spend 23 grueling weeks at the Salina campus.

"If you go to a rural area you might not have back up for 20-30 minutes, or even longer. So it’s very important they’re able to defend themselves if they happen to get in an altercation out there," says Lt. Allan Lytton, the No. 2 at the Highway Patrol Academy.

Scandal and dysfunction

Patrol officials say the training is one reason it’s been harder to find recruits.

Another is that once you join the Kansas Highway Patrol, you can be sent anywhere in the state.

The Patrol, like many police agencies, is also having trouble recruiting because of scandals in departments like Chicago and Ferguson. But the biggest problem for Kansas state law enforcement agencies is pay.

In January, a new Highway Patrol pay plan starts that will boost salaries.

But for years, Kansas troopers made less than their peers in other states and less than many police officers around Kansas.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Sometimes backup can be up to 30 minutes away. That's why KHP recruits spend so much time on self-defense.

"I think safety is a concern for the motoring public, for Kansas citizens and visitors," says Master Trooper Mitch Mellick, president of the Troopers Association. He is a 17 year veteran and works the Kansas Turnpike.

He says in 1999 there were 67 troopers working the Kansas City area 24 hours a day.

Today, there are just 13 working two shifts.

"If you have Kansas City, Missouri chasing somebody that’s coming over to our state and they’re asking for help and we only have three troopers working and they’re all tied up on a crash, the odds for the state to be over there is slim and none at that point in time," says Mellick.

In fact, 27 of the state's 105 counties have no trooper assigned and 31 more only have one. Only two troops work around the clock — Troop G which patrols the Kansas Turnpike and Troop K which is the Capitol Police.

"Response times are slower not only in support of other agencies but in support of our own officers as they’re waiting for assistance, so clearly there’s an officer safety issue with less people," says Col. Mark Bruce who was promoted to superintendent in January.

Nobody in the Highway Patrol is trying to mask the problems, especially Bruce. "I grew up in a patrol family. I've known nothing but the patrol since I was born. My dad retired from the patrol in 1993."

Bruce had to work fast. He inherited a severe morale problem brought on, troopers say, by previous Superintendent Ernie Garcia. Garcia was the former U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms and appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback. He had no experience with a local law enforcement agency. A survey of troopers last year revealed the depth of the problem.

"It was due to people were just fed up with the morale, fed up with the way they were being disciplined, fed up with the heavy handing and walked out the door and went somewhere else," says union president Mellick.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
KHP Trooper Tanner Blakesley has been on the road for about a year. Being a trooper has always been his goal.

Mellick says under Bruce things are getting better. In addition to shoring up morale, Bruce pushed through the higher pay, a better retirement package and hired a full-time recruiter.

"We used to be able to sit back with a 'if we built it they would come' mentality and that worked for us for decades because of the reputation and because we were looked at as the best, so people want to work for the best," says Bruce.

Still, there are young people in Kansas who see the same things in the Patrol Bruce did growing up.

"To me it just seems crazy that there's not thousands of applicants," says Trooper Tanner Blakesley who has been on the road about year. "I can't imagine doing anything else. I'm usually sitting in my car waiting for when I'm supposed to go to work 10 minutes before I'm supposed to."

But some of the Patrol's regulations keep lots of  young people from applying. For example, troopers can't have any visible tattoos. That not only excludes lots of young people, but many military veterans. There's currently a committee studying that regulation.

"We’ve got to figure out a way to strike a balance between adjusting and evolving with society, because we are a reflection of society, without losing track of who we are and where we came from," says Bruce.

It’s not just the Highway Patrol with staffing problems.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation should have 93 investigators but only has 68.

There’s about a 30 percent yearly turnover in the Department of Corrections. Low pay is the biggest problem.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee suggests moving money from education to boost salaries at the Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections and KBI.

Moving money

So, what to do?

"I’ve been very blunt and I will continue to be blunt now. I think we spend far too much in education in the State of Kansas and we’ve spent it far too unwisely," says state Rep. John Rubin, a conservative Republican from Shawnee.

So the solution, he says, is to take money from K-12. "I am going to be vigorously pursuing next year taking some money from the education budget for public safety."

That would set up a huge battle between two core functions of state government, education and law enforcement.

And because of poor tax revenues, that battle would be over a shrinking pie.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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