Casper Wyoming April 20 2014
High turnover, harsh disciplinary actions and supervisors with little accountability have created a morale problem among Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers, according to an employee survey and interviews with troopers.
“Morale is as low as I have ever seen it.”
Ten employees with the patrol penned that comment on the agency’s most recent employee survey, performed in 2013. Although the survey was taken two years ago, recent interviews with troopers suggest the problems persist.
“I would have to say that inconsistencies in treatment between troopers and the higher-ranking individuals within Highway Patrol probably put a bigger strain on the agency than anything,” one trooper, who has been with the agency for several years and spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Star-Tribune this month.
The agency’s top official says vacancies, which aren’t unique to the patrol, are to blame for low morale. Col. John Butler doesn’t deny there are disputes over disciplinary actions within the agency but said they are rooted in rumors rather than fact.
“People make these assertions based only on what they’ve heard,” Butler said. “We strive to do the best we can with consistency in discipline.”
Butler announced his retirement from highway patrol on Thursday, effective June 1. He was not available for comment on the announcement.
The highway patrol conducts the employee survey every two years and posts the results online. In 2013, 251 employees completed the survey.
The agency has 375 positions, of which 208 are legislatively allotted for peace officers.
There are now about 30 vacant positions for troopers, said Major Perry Jones. That’s six more openings than the patrol had at the end of last year.
At the end of 2012, the agency had 97 percent of its trooper positions filled. Now, 86 percent are filled.
“Vacancies, over time, can weigh on morale,” said Butler, head of the agency.
The anonymous trooper said employees leave the agency because they feel they’re being disciplined for issues that are out of their control.
“They want us to be robots. They want a cookie-cutter trooper,” a second anonymous trooper, who has been with the agency for several years, told the Star-Tribune.
For example, if a trooper damages his patrol car during a pursuit, a disciplinary letter will go into his file labeling the incident as a preventable crash, the first trooper said.
“These guys have so many things stacked against them that they’re just quitting,” he said. “We’re losing troopers faster than we can replace them.”
But, the trooper said, there’s no consistency when it comes to the accountability for patrol employees.
“Once you make lieutenant, you’re golden,” the trooper said. “These higher-ranking people get protected illegally.”
On the employee survey, 22 percent of people said they disagreed with the statement: "My supervisor is held accountable for what he/she is supposed to do." In 2011, 14 percent of survey respondents said they disagreed with the statement.
“It seems like at times they try to cover things up when it involves a supervisor,” the second anonymous trooper said.
Butler said the disciplinary letters are meant to document behavior that is not tolerated and needs to be corrected. All punishments are personnel matters and are discussed only between the trooper and his or her supervisor, he said, so complaints about inconsistency are likely rooted in rumors.
The colonel said he doesn’t think troopers are leaving because they’re unhappy with the patrol's direction. He said troopers quit because they want more than the agency is able to offer, such as pay increases, job relocation or opportunities to specialize.
“We can provide an environment that they can be successful in,” Butler said. “It’s up to them what they take from that. You can’t provide everything for everybody. That challenge is always going to be there -- to meet everybody’s needs.”
Thirty-six percent of respondents to the most recent survey said they disagreed with the statement “I am satisfied with the overall direction the WHP is taking.” Two years earlier, 28 percent of people disagreed with the statement.
Butler said he has worked to improve morale within the patrol by closing pay gaps, which were a prominent complaint on the employee surveys.
Improvement also means understanding the complaints. Last year, the colonel visited the patrol’s divisions throughout the state in order to better understand the concerns of each. He said he’s striving to keep an open mind rather than focusing on traditional law enforcement practices.
However, Gaylan Wright, a retired trooper who was with the agency for 18 years, is worried the current administration is unwilling to change, and the only way to improve is to heed troopers’ concerns.
“I think that the administration, I think they were doing the best that they could," he said. "But I think that they got to the point that all they’d ever done was be on the highway patrol, and then how could you expect it to be a progressive-type organization?"