State troopers are stretched to fight drugs and curb highway deaths

Cpl. Anthony Munoz, a member of the Georgia State Patrol Criminal Interdiction Unit, on patrol in Atlanta on April 15, 2024. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

ATLANTA — When Cpl. Anthony Munoz straps on his bullet-proof vest each day and pulls out of the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta, Munoz never knows how his shift will unfold. What is for certain is that the traffic — of cars, criminals and contraband — is constant. 

And what is also true is that there are not nearly enough state troopers on the road to catch them all.

A 13-year veteran, trooper Munoz, 45, is part of the department’s Criminal Interdiction Unit, whose main focus is suppressing the robust illegal drug trade flowing through Georgia. Last year the eight-member team made 1,309 arrests, including 76 felony drug arrests, and helped other agencies seize $24 million worth of contraband. 

In 2019, the unit had 25 members. 

Capt. Greg Shackleford, the troop commander, said that in 2020 the unit was split up and half the team was sent to Georgia State Patrol posts around the state, which were hurting for staff, to conduct the Department of Public Safety’s core functions — traffic enforcement and responding to car crashes. 

The split has translated into Munoz and the rest of his team now spending most of their time monitoring Interstate 20 just south of Atlanta, and Interstate 75/85 west of the city. He said they regularly  support the investigations and busts of other local and federal agencies, and frequently join the governor’s crime suppression details, which have included taking down car thieves and street racers. 

All this leaves his team with less time to develop intelligence on their own drug cases and to snare more traffickers. It also means the troopers no longer have time to monitor roads in rural areas in south Georgia where, Shackleford said, many drug traffickers driving trailers full of drugs and contraband enter the state on highways coming from Florida and Texas and now ride around unchecked for hundreds of miles. 

Drugs, weapons and cash seized by state troopers in 2023. (Credit: Dept. of Public Safety)

Chronically understaffed

The Georgia State Patrol remains chronically understaffed. While the state’s population has grown, and with it the number of motorists, car crashes and criminal activity, the number of state troopers has hovered stubbornly between about 750 and 850 for over a decade, giving Georgia the unwanted distinction of having lowest number of troopers per capita in the country. 

The average number of state troopers per capita in the U.S. is 21; for Georgia, it’s eight. And the outlook for changing that is not great, Col. William “Billy” Hitchens, the public safety commissioner, told legislators during hearings last fall — Unless the state makes bold moves in improving compensation. He said Georgia State Patrol has “aimed to reach 1,000 troopers for as long as I have been employed,” which is 30 years. 

(Design: Anna Leckie)

The state saw its trooper numbers plummet to 745 during the pandemic in 2021. The agency is now back to 845 troopers. The current trooper school started with 61 candidates, and if recent history is a guide, about 70% will graduate in September and put on the badge.

(Design: Anna Leckie)

While “things are moving in the right direction” this year in terms of recruitment, said Hitchens, he said too many veteran officers are either resigning or retiring early. 

Between 2018 and 2023, 48 troopers left the agency on a full-service retirement, meaning they had served for 30 years. During the same period, 341 troopers resigned, retired early or departed for other reasons. As it costs the department $153,397 to train a trooper, those who left early cost the state $52 million, said Lt. Col. Josh Lamb, director of administrative services for the Department of Public Safety.

(Design: Anna Leckie)

Fewer troopers means more highway deaths 

Fewer troopers on the state’s roads impact everyone, say law enforcement officials. . 

“As our trooper strength decreases, traffic fatalities increase,” said Hitchens. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows a direct inverse relationship between trooper staffing and the number of fatalities in Georgia. At its low ebb in 2021, with 769 troopers, 1,925 people died on Georgia roads. More recently, in 2023, with 820 troopers, Georgia saw 1,647 fatalities, an 8% decrease over 2022. 

(Design: Anna Leckie)

“We are concerned with traffic patterns, the way people drive, and we enforce the law out there,” Hitchens told State Affairs. “When you start losing personnel, whether it’s the state, or cities and counties, one of the first things that may be taken away is traffic enforcement. Because they’re responding to other calls — robberies, domestics, you name it. And when troopers stop doing it, there are just fewer people out there reminding you, ‘Hey, that’s dangerous. Slow down.’ ”

The state patrol wrote 408,574 citations to motorists last year, but issued even more warnings — 510,265. Hitchens noted that mere trooper presence on the highway is a strong deterrent.

“It doesn’t have to be you that gets stopped,” he said. “Those 50 cars that ride by during that time and see that patrol car, go ‘Ooh, I don’t have my seatbelt on … I’m playing with my phone,’ and it just impacts that behavior. But the less officers you see on the road, the less you have people changing their driving behavior.”

Along with encouraging safer driving, DUI enforcement has become a higher priority for the department. A “Nighthawks” squad of 22 officers patrols after midnight in areas of the state where data analysis shows high incidences of alcohol and drug-induced crashes and violations. The state patrol made 16,409 arrests for driving under the influence in 2023.

Hitchens said the work of such special units is compromised when they’re pulled into other duties due to statewide manpower shortages. The three Nighthawks units, for example, are often pulled into other traffic stops and crime suppression details in Atlanta, Macon and Columbus. And drug interdiction officers have had to cover vehicle crashes and multiple public protests over the Atlanta Public Training Center (dubbed “Cop City”)  and, more recently, conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. 

Besides securing troopers, Hitchens said the department is struggling to recruit dispatchers, who are the lifeline for troopers and officers who patrol alone and depend on dispatchers to provide critical information quickly.  Today, the department has 129 dispatchers who work at nine regional call centers. They need 169 to be fully staffed.

A tough sell in the ‘Cop City’ era

Hitchens told lawmakers that heightened public criticism of law enforcement over the past few years has played a role in the department's ongoing challenges to recruit and retain officers. 

“People without understanding of what it’s like to be involved in a rapidly evolving life and death situation started scrutinizing officers, cities started defunding their police departments while demanding greater accountability and more training, both of which cost money,” he said. “Following the George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor instances, the media and some leaders in our community nationwide began to demonize the police.”

Hitchens said that since the death of Manuel Teran, a protester against the planned Atlanta Police Training Center who was allegedly shot by a Georgia trooper during a firefight on the forested property in 2023, and the sometimes violent public demonstrations that ensued, “that dynamic just got worse. For a long time with ‘Cop City,’ it was constant protest, and you know, that weighs on you.”

Munoz, who was patrolling with other local law enforcement on the perimeter of the training center site the day Teran died, said the public’s jaundiced view of that episode and other recent struggles between police and citizens that have gone viral on social media can be frustrating.

“I know that a lot of the narrative out there is not true at all,” he said. “There are millions and millions of police encounters every day. And those [violent] ones are fractions of a percent of incidents, and whether a trooper or officer responds the right way, it all boils down to compliance. If you just comply, you’re presumed innocent, you’ll have your chance to make your case, and the facts will come out. Don’t argue, don’t fight, don’t resist. We don’t want to fight you.” 

Noting that he has a wife and four children he wants to come home to, Munoz said, “We’ve been pounded with de-escalation in training, and that’s what we practice. I’m sure there are officers out there now that freeze and that say, ‘Do I do my job? Or am I going to be put in prison, because I reacted in a certain way?’ So we do carry that, and it’s a heavy, heavy burden.”

Last year three House Democrats introduced House Bill 107, the Police Accountability Act, which proposes an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement officers and would have required body-worn cameras for all peace officers. The bill did not advance out of committee, but Hitchens said taken together with the public unrest and anti-police sentiment since 2020, it all had a demoralizing effect on his officers.

“All of these factors are forcing officers to become fatigued with our profession,” he said. “They feel that support is ending and the job is not worth the risk.”

According to the Georgia Peace Officers Training and Standards (POST) Council, the number of officers with basic council certifications in Georgia dropped to 5,956 in 2023 from 6,666 in 2017.

“I don't think there's a single law enforcement agency in Georgia that is fully staffed,” said Chris Harvey, deputy executive director of Georgia POST. “And they have a very hard time getting qualified people on board. … There just aren’t enough quality people that are interested in doing this job.” 

While some agencies have raised salaries and added signing bonuses, he said, “I can tell you that it's not a solved problem. Because I don't think it’s primarily a money issue. I think it has a lot to do with the difficulty of doing this job these days. I'm not sure it's ever been harder to work in law enforcement. The amount of scrutiny along with the amount of violence that police officers encounter on a regular basis, they generally feel like they’re out there alone. If they make one mistake, they're gonna pay dearly for it. … It's a tough sell.”

(Design: Anna Leckie)

Father and son patrol leaders fight for trooper compensation

For Hitchens, his push to recruit potential state troopers  and convince state leaders to increase pay and benefits for troopers is supported by an unlikely suspect — his dad.

House Appropriations public safety subcommittee chair Rep. Bill Hitchens, R- Rincon is a former trooper who served in the Georgia State Patrol for 28 years, and was later appointed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue to serve as public safety commissioner from 2004 to 2011. The elder Hitchens has served in the House since 2013.

At the House Working Group on Public Safety meeting last fall, Rep. Hitchens noted that the state patrol has maintained around 700 troopers since he joined in 1969, when the state population was about 4 million. “Now it’s 11 million people … and we have a lot more murders, stolen cars and merchandise,” the elder Hitchens said. “Where we fell down, I don’t know. It’s just we’ve never grown. … And now we’re at a breaking point.”

The younger Hitchens was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp as deputy commissioner for public safety in 2020, and then as commissioner in 2023. As commissioner he oversees the Georgia State Patrol, the Motor Carrier Compliance Division, the Capitol Police Division, and other special law enforcement units, including the crime suppression, SWAT and canine teams.

The son and father team have successfully fought for substantial pay raises for troopers, whose salaries have increased over the past three legislative cycles by nearly $17,000. That includes a 4% cost of living increase and a $3,000 bonus for law enforcement officers approved by the General Assembly in the fiscal year 2025 budget. The starting salary for a new trooper will be $63,684 as of July 1, if the governor approves it in the budget, as expected. 

Dispatchers will also get a boost in next year’s budget, with new pay step increases that can take them from a starting salary of $39,000 to up to $56,000 as they earn promotions.

Progress on staffing goals by the Department of Public Safety as of March 2024. (Credit: Dept. of Public Safety)

Col. Hitchens said those pay bumps seem to be turning the tide on recruitment. The number of applicants and graduates rose for the last few trooper schools held over the past year. Other changes the department made to trooper school requirements have also helped, including allowing people to go home more often during training, permitting access to mobile phones at night, and allowing people with arm tattoos to train and serve, if they cover them with long sleeves.

“We tried to make changes in training that we felt like really didn't help people stay,” said Hitchens. “And we didn't make it kinder or gentler. I mean, in this job that you sign up for, there's got to be a certain level of discipline, there's got to be a certain level of respect, with high physical training standards, that's still there. But the things that we could change, we decided to do.”

Both men remain concerned about how to stem the trend of early retirement, and agree that sweetening the retirement package is the key way to combat it.

Currently most troopers qualify for a pension equal to 1% of their final pay for every year of service, and can also participate in a 401(K) savings plan while they serve, which the state matches up to 9%, depending on their number of years on the force. But Col. Hitchens is pushing for a more generous “defined benefit” retirement plan, with a 3% pension, which he said would double what most troopers get when they retire. Instead of earning about $25,000 a year on average, they would receive about $52,000. 

Presently, the average tenure of a state trooper is 10 years, nowhere close to the 30-year careers Hitchens and other leaders want his officers to pursue.

And he knows it matters to them, as retirement benefits emerged as the number one retention issue on a recent agency-wide, anonymous survey. 

“Every other agency is increasing their hiring packages, raising pay and offering better benefits, from retirement to free health care,” Hitchens said, noting that the Atlanta and Sandy Springs police departments offer substantially higher pay and 3% defined benefit plans.

“We’re in a competitive bidding process, and we have to offer a reward that’s worth the risk our people are taking with their lives and liberty.”

The tenure of senior officers also matters because of the crucial role they play in mentoring new recruits. 

“When we have our young troopers, the men and women that come into the field, they’re excited,” said Shackleford, the troop commander, who spent much of his 36-year public safety career in SWAT before taking over Troop K, which includes the crime suppression, criminal interdiction, K-9, SWAT and dive units.  “They see the fast cars, they want to get into something. And the problem is, it’s just like a puppy. A puppy’s gonna get into something and make a mess. So we need the older ones to kind of calm them down and guide them a bit, show them how to see and assess a situation.”

Such role modeling of behavior, said Hitchens, “is very important, especially with de-escalation. A senior officer, having dealt with so much of that, has that confidence and the competence to carry out [their] job in a way that I think a lot of younger, less experienced officers don't have yet. And that's how you learn and morph over a career,” said Hitchens, adding that that transfer of knowledge and practice from veterans to recruits “benefits the public as well.” 

Rep. Hitchens co-sponsored two bills related to bolstering retirement plans for law enforcement that passed out of the retirement committee during the last session. One passed in the House, but did not get a vote in the Senate. Other lawmakers balked at the cost.

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