Backup is on its way for state troopers

The Roanoke Times | Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A statewide shortage of Virginia State Police troopers is turning around, with Friday’s graduation of a new class of troopers and Monday’s start of school for another training academy class.

Virginia State Police Trooper Lisa Hubert clocks a speeder going 82 in a 60 mph zone on Interstate 81 south on Monday. Hubert will soon be joined by six new troopers who are being assigned to Botetourt County. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Virginia State Police Trooper Lisa Hubert clocks a speeder going 82 in a 60 mph zone on Interstate 81 south on Monday. Hubert will soon be joined by six new troopers who are being assigned to Botetourt County. Photo by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

For troopers like Lisa Hubert, 34, a mother of two and wife of another state trooper, the backup can’t come soon enough. With a job description that includes long shifts and hours of overtime, Hubert and her husband find the job rewarding but hectic.

“The stress of when I first started and us juggling schedules was crazy,” said Hubert, a five-year state police veteran who patrols Botetourt County. “We’d get our schedules and just wonder, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”

The 62 troopers who graduated from the state police academy Friday will take positions across the state, said spokeswoman Corinne Geller. Six will join the ranks in Division 6, headquartered in Salem.

Another class began yesterday, which could pump 94 more troopers into the force in February 2012.

The number of sworn state police positions across Virginia remains too low, despite the infusion of fresh troops, state police officials said. The new troopers still leave the agency 254 people short of the 2,080 positions authorized by the General Assembly, Geller said.

Salem’s Division 6 — which covers 14 counties, including Rockbridge, Botetourt, Roanoke, Franklin, Bedford, Montgomery and Floyd — is authorized to have 148 troopers and supervisors. The division had 30 vacancies as of Monday, said Sgt. Rob Carpentieri, a state police spokesman.

“It’s important that we first are good stewards of the people’s money, but at the same time be able to serve as you expect to be served,” state police Superintendent Col. Stephen Flaherty said in an interview. “To do that, we need to be at least at full strength.”

State police strength began slipping two years ago, Flaherty said. Because of budget cuts, officials canceled all academy classes in 2009 and operated only one in 2010. That, combined with normal retirements and resignations, left a sizable gap in the state police force.

New funding from the General Assembly, spearheaded by Gov. Bob McDonnell, helped plug the leak, Flaherty said. The cash allowed the state police to restart the usual cycle of two training academy classes per year.

“It sounds like gloom and doom, but we’re making some headway,” Flaherty said.

An internal state police report published in October found staffing levels in the Salem division lower than agency officials recommended for adequate policing. The Roanoke/Salem area, for example, had 13 troopers and supervisors authorized, but only eight working. The report recommended 19 troopers in the area.

As of April, the Salem division’s response time to calls remained higher than the state average, Flaherty said. That’s at least partly due to the shortage of troopers, he said.

“Obviously, if you normally have three people working a county and they’re a person short on the shift, it’s going to mean a longer response time,” Flaherty said. “It may take us a little longer to get there, but we’ll still come.”

The mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia can add further to the response time, dragging down the division compared with those in other parts of the state.

The manpower shortage has been especially hard on the Salem division. Several troopers and supervisors remain on administrative leave after the May 30 shooting that injured Sgt. Matthew Brannock. Troopers from other counties have been brought in to help fill holes, Carpentieri said.

“We’re doing double duty,” Carpentieri said. “We have had to refocus and reassign some of our personnel to areas that need the assistance.”

More troopers than usual were scheduled to work on Memorial Day — the day police say Brannock was shot by a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy who allegedly just killed his ex-wife — because it’s one of four key holidays for which the agency requires 75 percent staffing. Had those extra troopers not been working, the shooting could have ended much worse, Hubert said.

“If it wasn’t a holiday, there wouldn’t have been enough people, no doubt,” Hubert said.

The six new troopers assigned to the Salem division will all be placed in Botetourt County as part of a restructuring plan that cross-trains troopers as operators of highway truck weigh stations, Carpentieri said.

Two of the new troopers are sons of Sgt. Bob Black, 54, a 33-year state police veteran based in Salem.

Rob Black, 27, left a job at Dish Network to become a trooper, while Jon Black, 24, worked at Advance Auto Parts before joining the academy with his brother.

As they reported for duty Monday morning, the brothers said they were eager to begin patrolling Southwest Virginia.

“I want to work as much as I can,” Rob Black said. “Not just for the money standpoint, but because the guys out here are tired. They need breaks.”

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