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Rallying At The Capitol: Off-duty state troopers bring requests to lawmakers

THE DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Gov. Phil Bryant addresses the crowd at the State Capitol Wednesday, stressing the need for a patrol school and vowing his support to troopers by stating, "With God as my witness, help is on the way."

THE DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Gov. Phil Bryant addresses the crowd at the State Capitol Wednesday, stressing the need for a patrol school and vowing his support to troopers by stating, “With God as my witness, help is on the way.”

JACKSON – Mississippi Highway Patrol officers are calling on lawmakers to spend millions of dollars to train more troopers and to buy new cars and safety equipment, including bullet-proof vests.

Between 100 and 200 uniformed, off-duty troopers went to the Capitol Wednesday to rally for their requests.

“We’re respectfully asking our legislators to hear us, to hear our plea for help,” said Greenwood-based Master Sgt. Jimmie Thomas, president of the Mississippi State Troopers Association.

Legislators are in the final few weeks of writing a $6 billion state budget for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1. At this point, it’s not clear how much they’ll set aside for the Highway Patrol.

Among those showing their support at Wednesday’s event were Capt. Chris Williams and Lt. Albert Johnson of Brookhaven’s Troop M. Both admit the trooper shortage is causing a hardship in Lincoln County and surrounding areas.

“Right now we have 15 road men working nine counties,” Williams said, adding that this number is 10 fewer than just two years ago.

“There have been retirements, promotions and different assignments that have taken troopers off our roads, and they haven’t been replaced,” Williams continued.

He points to fatality numbers from car crashes within the district as evidence the problem is serious. “We had 11 fatalities in Troop M in 2012 when we had 25 road men. In 2013, there were 23 fatalities. That’s more than double, and I attribute it to a lack of manpower and visibility.”

Johnson, who is in charge of coordinating Troop M’s work schedule, says providing coverage in the nine counties is difficult. “The public sometimes has a hard time understanding why there is such a delayed response to calls, but once they are told why, they’re usually sympathetic,” he explained.

Off-duty troopers in uniform rallied at the Capitol Wednesday for their requests. Among those attending the Highway Patrol "blue out" at the Capitol were (from left) Capt. Chris Williams and Lt. Albert Johnson of Brookhaven's Troop M. Johnson, who is in charge of coordinating Troop M's work schedule, says providing coverage in the nine counties is difficult. "There have been retirements, promotions and different assignments that have taken troopers off our roads, and they haven't been replaced," Williams said.

Off-duty troopers in uniform rallied at the Capitol Wednesday for their requests. Among those attending the Highway Patrol “blue out” at the Capitol were (from left) Capt. Chris Williams and Lt. Albert Johnson of Brookhaven’s Troop M. Johnson, who is in charge of coordinating Troop M’s work schedule, says providing coverage in the nine counties is difficult. “There have been retirements, promotions and different assignments that have taken troopers off our roads, and they haven’t been replaced,” Williams said.

Johnson says that even if the process to prepare for a trooper school was begun immediately, it would still be a while before individual districts got relief.

“It would take about a year for new troopers to fill the vacancies,” he estimated.

Mississippi has about 500 troopers now, but officials say the ideal number is about 650. The last trooper training school was in 2011, with about 50 graduates. Of the 502 sworn officers, 120 are currently retirement eligible.

“We have just over 500 sworn officers within the Mississippi Highway Patrol, about 300 of whom are enforcement officers – what the public thinks of when they think ‘state trooper,'” Thomas said. “This has put Mississippi’s motoring public in a dangerous situation.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who started his career in the 1970s as a Hinds County deputy sheriff, has said for months that a trooper training school is one of his priorities this year.

“As God is my witness, help is on the way,” Bryant said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.

The earliest budget recommendation from top lawmakers does not include money for a trooper training school. But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eugene “Buck” Clarke, R-Hollandale, said last week that about $6.9 million could be added before a final spending plan is adopted.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said too few troopers are on the roads. He told of seeing a driver weaving in traffic on a Friday evening. Gunn said he called the Highway Patrol to report the potentially dangerous situation, and he was told the nearest trooper was about 45 minutes away.

“It boils down to the safety of our citizens,” Gunn said.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has sharply criticized Department of Public Safety leaders in recent months, saying they’re spending too much on administration and not enough on troopers. Last fall, when Commissioner of Public Safety Albert Santa Cruz presented his budget request for fiscal 2015, he angered Reeves and other top lawmakers by providing little information and giving vague answers to their questions. The commissioner is appointed by the governor.

Troopers held their news conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the same time Reeves was presiding over the Senate. He said in a news release that lawmakers will consider several requests during final budget negotiations, including a trooper school and pay raises for sheriffs, tax collectors, county supervisors and teachers.

“We have a lot more good ideas than we have money,” Reeves said. “You will see Senate and House leadership sit down in a few weeks to look at what taxpayers can afford and what best meets the needs of the state.”

Daily Leader correspondent Kim Henderson and Emily Wagster Pettus of The Associated Press contributed to this report.