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Montana Viewpoint
HIGHWAY SAFETY HAS ITS PRICE
Highway Patrol losing patrolmen to better-paying jobs

June 21, 2004  

In my job as vice-chairman of the Legislative Audit Committee I get to review lots of interesting reports that give me greater insight into where our Montana government works well, where it doesn’t, and how to improve it. The recent audit on the Montana Highway highlights a problem that the Patrol shares with many other state agencies—an inability to attract and keep qualified employees because of low pay. 

Besides doing financial audits, which is basically looking at how money is gotten and spent, the Legislative Audit Division does performance audits. Performance audits look at the way state agencies fulfill their duties to the Montana public. Contrary to how you or I might feel about being audited, our state agencies welcome an audit as a tool that helps them to improve their performance. 

This audit contains three recommendations for improvement that could allow more time on patrol and less time doing paperwork. They could also save the Patrol some money, but not enough to address the larger problem of recruitment and retention of officers.  

It’s become commonplace to hear that the state is providing a very good training ground for people who want to move their skills into the private sector, or take a better paying job with local government. It’s true. Because of the pay scale that we offer, people beginning a profession will hire on with the state, work a year or two, and move on to a job where the pay is better; often out of state. You can’t blame them, but it’s not helping Montana much. 

The starting salary for Montana Highway Patrol officers is about $25,800 a year and the average starting salary for Montana Sheriff’s Deputies is $34,188—$8380 more a year. Why would somebody stay with the Patrol when they could make 32% more in another branch of law enforcement? It seems almost like a calling; a commitment to their fellow Montanans and a dedication to duty. 

Let me be very clear; these are men and women who put their lives on the line daily to keep us from killing each other on Montana’s highways. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are hard working individuals who hold themselves to a very high standard of conduct, and like any law enforcement agency, they deserve the moral and financial support needed to help them protect us from harm. In this case that support needs to come from the legislature, and frankly, it hasn’t.

Not including supervisory officers, there are about 165 patrol officers. In the past ten years 163 officers have left the Patrol. While 79 retired, another 55 left for jobs in other law enforcement agencies, and of those 55, 35 have left in the last five years, indicating an increasing rate of turnover. This is particularly interesting when you consider that even local law enforcement agencies are having trouble recruiting officers because of their own salary limitations. 

Training new Patrol Officers is not cheap. It costs us $25,000 a recruit to provide the 12 week Montana Highway Patrol Recruit Academy boot camp program and another 8 weeks of on the job training. It also takes three to five years of active duty before an officer is able to acquire the proper skills and training that makes a competent Patrolman. Not coincidentally, that’s the same timeframe that officers leave the Patrol to take jobs with other law enforcement agencies.                                   

There’s much more in the audit report, and you can read it online if you’re so inclined. My point is that if we want quality people working for us, we need to treat them like quality people. My father frequently told me, “If you treat your employees right, they will treat you right.” It’s time—past time—that we Montanans ask ourselves if we are willing to pay for the quality of service we expect, because if we aren’t, someone else is. 

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[All audit reports of the Legislative Auditor’s Office are available online at www.leg.st.mt.us/comment/css/audit . I encourage everyone to have a look. This article is based on 03P-09; listed on the website under Performance Audits: Justice, Department of, Highway Patrol Division.] 

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org