State police battle shortfall as demand for troopers swells
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series about the Pennsylvania State Police staffing crisis.
From behind the counter of his rural bait and sporting goods shop, Gary Basinger watched the stranger lurking in the aisles of fishing lures and fly rods.
Nearly three decades of standing behind that counter, peddling bait and ammo to hunters and fishermen heading into the unforgiving mountains of Fayette County, left him with a sixth sense when it came to people.
When Basinger saw the stranger tuck away a few items and head for the door without paying, he stopped him.
Then Basinger noticed a 7-inch knife in the man's back pocket, so he grabbed the knife and the stranger, holding him as he dialed state police.
“They asked if I could let him go. ... They said they were really busy and they would deal with it later. I said I wanted the man arrested and I had disarmed him, but again they said the troopers were busy on other calls,” said Basinger, 64, who has owned B&G Bait and Sport Shop in Normalville since 1986.
“I told them if they didn't send some troopers up here, I'd take care of it myself. Two troopers arrived a while later and arrested him, but it was a real hassle. That's how it is up here.”
State and local officials point to Basinger's run-in as evidence of a lingering state police staffing crisis that has left too few troopers on routine patrols as demand for their services increases at a dramatic rate.
A Tribune-Review analysis of staffing data from 2008 to 2014 — obtained through two years of complicated legal negotiations with state police — supports officials' claims.
A review of manpower at 89 stations across the state from 2008 to 2014 showed:
• The number of Pennsylvanians relying on state police for protection increased by about 90,000, but the number of officers assigned to regional stations that conduct patrols, investigate crime and handle calls such as Basinger's decreased by 17 percent.
• At 75 percent of the stations — all of which primarily are focused on routine patrols — staffing decreased despite more than 1,177 troopers graduating from the state police academy.
• Staffing levels for the department's specialty units, which enforce liquor laws, monitor gamblers at the state's 12 casinos and patrol the turnpike, remained steady. Those units are paid by contracting agencies such as the Liquor Control Board and the gaming and turnpike commissions.
Neither state police nor the troopers union would discuss the issues, citing safety concerns.
‘Only two cars on patrol'
State Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Democrat from South Union, Fayette County, said the numbers are not surprising.
“In Fayette County, there is one night a week when there's only two cars on patrol,” Mahoney said.
Truck driver Kevin Firestone, 50, of Indian Head in Fayette County, said he has called state police twice when burglars broke in to his home.
“It takes them at least 45 minutes to arrive, and by that time (the intruder's) long gone. It's frustrating,” Firestone said.
In recent years, Mahoney has led an effort to stem years of continual staffing shortfalls at the 110-year-old law enforcement agency, where the shortage of 331 troopers is expected to dramatically increase because 1,000 troopers are eligible for retirement this year, and nearly 40 percent of the agency's 4,358 officers will qualify for pensions in four years.
The situation is complicated by a nationwide decline in law enforcement recruits, fed by a spate of deadly attacks on officers and high-profile cases in which officers were charged in connection with on-the-job incidents, experts said.
‘A vast area to cover'
Mahoney said the dearth of troopers for patrols is particularly troubling, considering the recent surge in drug-related crime and the increase in towns disbanding their police departments to save money.
Point Marion, Fayette County, just shy of the West Virginia border, closed its police department in 2013.
For months, the quiet town of less than a square mile, nestled at the confluence of the Monongahela and Cheat rivers, relied on state police to protect its 1,146 residents, borough Manager Arthur Strimel said.
Strimel is not critical of state police, but he said the force was so thinly stretched that troopers were not able to respond quickly when needed, particularly to minor incidents.
Last year, the borough contracted with the Southwest Regional Police Force, based 36 miles away in Belle Vernon, for police protection, Strimel said.
Like Strimel, Ed Christofano of Youngwood in Westmoreland County isn't critical of state police, who patrol his town of 2,900.
“They do a great job,” said Christofano, who disarmed a robber three years ago in his pharmacy before state police arrived. “But they have a vast area to cover. It would be more of a deterrent if people saw police cars on the streets all the time.”
‘Sitting in casinos'
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are critical of using state troopers in casinos.
Given the statewide drug epidemic, beefing up patrols is more important than enforcing gambling or liquor laws, particularly since Pennsylvania has become a frequent pass-through for East Coast drug traffickers, Mahoney said.
“We have 150 troopers sitting in casinos who could be out doing other work,” said state Sen. Pat Vance, R-Camp Hill. “I've not been particularly sympathetic with that. Gaming is a private enterprise. I know they pay for the troopers, but public dollars pay to train and uniform them, and then we don't utilize their services where they should be.”
The biggest problem remains the flood of troopers taking their pensions. Many began their careers as retirements surged in the aftermath of the bloody riots at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill in 1989.
This year, former Acting State Police Commissioner Marcus Brown warned lawmakers that the situation will only worsen as more troopers qualify for the department's generous pension benefits.
Tyree Blocker, Gov. Tom Wolf's nominee for state police commissioner, did not return calls for comment.
The answer could be legislation that encourages municipalities without police departments to band together to form regional police forces.
Twenty-five regional police departments in Pennsylvania serve a total of 135 municipalities, records show.
Colby Howe, borough manager of Bradford Woods, said his community is one of four in Allegheny County in the Northern Regional Police Department. The borough enjoys “top-notch service” from the force, which was formed more than four decades ago, he said.
“With 1,200 residents, there is no way we would be able to afford the quality and police presence we have here,” Howe said.
Basinger and Firestone said they long for the days when state police were not in short supply.
“I remember about eight to 10 years ago when I'd be working inside the shop here late at night after 11 p.m. There would be a knock on the door, and it would be a trooper standing there, saying he was just checking to make sure things were OK because I was the only building with a light on inside,” Basinger said.