The harrowing details are all too familiar. On July 15 at about 3:30 p.m., a driver going 85 mph on Interstate 95 near the Chippenham Parkway refused to stop for a Virginia State Police trooper. The car hit two others, ran off the road at Maury Street in South Richmond and fell 25 feet. The driver, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and killed, The Times-Dispatch reported.
On Aug. 13 at roughly 8:30 a.m., another driver ignored a trooper’s request to pull over in Dinwiddie County, leading to a high-speed chase on Interstate 85. The car on the loose slammed into a guardrail in Brunswick County, WRIC reported. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
These two recent incidents reflect the current speed crisis on our roads locally and nationally. In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported an estimate of 38,680 deaths in motor vehicle crashes in 2020 — the highest figure since 2007. That same month, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Leadership Team on Highway Safety reported that overall crash fatalities in Virginia rose 2% to 847 in 2020. Almost half of those deaths (406) were speed-related, the highest total in at least a decade.
“Speed is driving up the number of crashes, injuries and fatalities on our roadways to record-high levels,” Northam said in a July statement. “But these are not just statistics; these are the lives of parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends and loved ones.”
Reducing dangers on the roads is just one example of the need for a better presence and investment in public safety. On Aug. 6, state police graduated 40 new troopers. But behind the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance, the department heads toward its 90th anniversary next year facing serious challenges.
An Aug. 19 op-ed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, in The Mount Vernon Gazette outlined some of the issues. As of his writing, there was a near 27% vacancy rate in the ranks, driven by both a rise in experienced-employee departures and a drop in new applicants. As of the Aug. 6 graduation ceremony, WRIC reported 334 state trooper openings.
Opportunities to create a more diverse police force also were minimized by compensation and location issues, Krizek argued. The average statewide starting salary for troopers is $47,833, which is lower than some county pay levels for officers across the commonwealth. Additionally, fresh recruits might lack control over the location of their first assignments, while troopers at all levels can face emergencies that require weeks-long travel.
Both of these circumstances can create strains on family life. And all of the aforementioned dominoes can detract from quality policing, Krizek concluded: fewer trained staff members, longer shifts and canceled days off, leading to higher overtime costs, burnout, mental health struggles and errors in judgment.
Having a healthier, stronger state police is a part of our recovery from this pandemic. With the help of federal American Rescue Plan funding, Northam and the General Assembly recently dedicated $20 million to the department for this year.
Per the text of House Bill 7001, the money will address pay issues through the provision of one-time bonuses for sworn officers ($5,000), compression bonuses (2% to 8% of salary) for qualifying veteran officers, sign-on/recruitment bonuses ($5,000) for new troopers and retention bonuses as needed. The money also can be used for relocation expenses (up to $2,000).
We hope this aid — and shift in policy — will make an immediate impact for members of law enforcement. But the concerns addressed by state lawmakers cannot be solved through one-time federal dollars alone. The commonwealth needs a long-term plan that secures the stability of the state police for years to come.
In another step, a second set of $20 million will be placed in the first year of the next budget (2022-24) to implement a state police compensation plan that tackles recruitment, retention and compression issues. The road map toward that vision will include a work group that presents a report to state officials by October.
“The study should address issues of pay compression among the various levels of the existing law enforcement workforce, competition with other employers for individuals with the same preferred qualifications and skill sets, and any other circumstances such as the cost of relocation that create barriers to maintaining a diverse, high-quality law enforcement workforce,” HB 7001 reads. “In addition, the report shall include a detailed plan for implementing a compensation program that responds to the issues and problems outlined in the report and the related annual costs to implement the plan beginning in fiscal year 2023, and the ongoing cost for the next five fiscal years.”
These all are critical considerations. Already in 2021, the National Safety Council — which has a slightly different data collection method than the NHTSA — estimates that through May, the number of motor vehicle deaths nationwide (17,360) is up 20% from the previous year.