FHP short on troopers

Florida Highway Patrol troopers look over the SUV that crossed the median, struck another vehicle, and flipped over Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007, in Melbourne, Fla. Two women in separate vehicles were killed in the accident while a passenger was airlifted to Holmes Regional Medical Center.

Tim Shortt/The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 2:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 2:55 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. - The Florida Highway Patrol has nearly 200 vacant trooper jobs statewide, and some are worried that it could be a problem for public safety.

Concerns were raised after the deadly 70-vehicle pileup on Interstate 4 in Polk County on Jan. 9. Only two troopers were patrolling 2,010-square-mile Polk County when the early morning accidents occurred in heavy fog, killing five people.

Ed Hotaling, who retired from the FHP in 2006, told the Orlando Sentinel that Polk County was understaffed at the time.

"Do I think they should have had more people out there?" Hotaling said. "Sure. But if you don't have them, you can't put them out there."

Col. John Czernis said it wasn't staffing but weather and speeding drivers that caused the accidents. He said the Florida Department of Transportation placed warning signs up in the area, and FHP patrolled it for much of the night without seeing any problems.

Czernis acknowledged that stabilizing the work force and getting better pay for his 1,600 officers is his top priority.

"We have got to fill and maintain our positions," Czernis said. "We are barely keeping up with attrition."

Czernis has asked the state for an additional $6.9 million in next year's budget to give troopers a $500 increase for each year on the job, with a maximum of $5,000. But he's working against a possible $2 billion state budget shortfall, and getting additional funds will be difficult.

The FHP has 186 trooper vacancies statewide. Base pay for new troopers is $33,977, according to FHP, which is lower than many other police agencies in Florida. Among the 45 states that provided data to Policepay.net for a 2003 survey, FHP paid its troopers the least.

Jim Whitman is one of many troopers who have left the FHP for higher pay at other departments. After nearly 10 years with FHP, Whitman quit in 2004 and joined the Winter Park Police Department. He immediately received a $5,000 pay raise, guaranteed overtime, and merit and cost-of-living increases.

"I loved being a trooper," he said. "But when it comes to making a decision for your family, you have to do what's best for a family."

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