The Edmond Sun

March 9, 2012

OUR VIEW: Public safety needs support

The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Oklahoma politicians talk often and loudly about how much they support public safety. It’s often cited as a core function of government supported by conservatives and liberals alike.

But do we really support public safety?

Take a look at the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety’s budget and then ask yourself that question again. The numbers do not suggest that this state is all that committed to public safety, especially in our most rural areas where the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is relied upon the most.

Public Safety Commissioner Mike Thompson, an Edmond resident, visited The Sun’s Editorial Board recently. The picture he paints of the OHP’s status is of an agency at risk.

OHP now has 759 troopers deployed across Oklahoma, patrolling its highways and lakes. This is the lowest number of troopers deployed in the past 22 years. They cover 98,000 miles of roads and 4,000 miles of shoreline. Only 27 troopers are allotted to patrol the state’s 38 lakes. That means at any given time during an Oklahoma summer, there are 11 lakes and potentially more when considering days off, sick leave, etc., that may have no law enforcement presence at all.

The Oklahoma City Police Department has more personnel than the statewide OHP. By May of this year, the same will be true of the Tulsa Police Department, Thompson said.

The number of troopers will not be easy to increase in the short-term. Thompson’s department estimates the cost per new trooper is $133,000, which includes salary, benefits, training and equipment. The OHP has not put on a patrol school to train new troopers since 2009 due to budget cuts. Since that last school, the state has lost 84 troopers due to retirements, transfers to other agencies and in rare cases, conduct issues.

Thompson said his department estimates that it could take 16 years to get back to the 2009 staffing level if the state adds five new troopers a year. That’s a long time for some areas of our state to wait for law enforcement aid.

Part of this decrease in manpower is forcing counties and municipal police forces to shoulder more of the burden in their areas of jurisdiction. It also results in some very long, lonely stretches of highway where someone in trouble may wait for too long for help to come their way.

“We need to do something or else the force is going to be a totally reactive force, and we don’t want that,” Thompson said.

The department is seeking supplemental funding this year to have a patrol academy for 35 new recruits. An increased fee on DUI convictions was supposed to have been enough to fund the academy, but has fallen far short of what is needed, Thompson said.

Other pressing monetary issues for the department involve gasoline costs and patrol car replacement costs.

In Fiscal Year 2011, DPS had $3.4 million for gasoline and it has budgeted almost $5.9 million for this fiscal year. In Fiscal Year 2010, there was even less money for fuel at $2.8 million, which can only mean troopers were not able to drive their patrol cars as much.

Right now the average price of gasoline is almost 20 cents less than what it cost last June. But predictions of much higher gasoline prices this summer will mean that even the increased budget amount will not be enough to make sure those patrol cars cover all the miles they actually need to roam.

Additionally, vehicle costs for troopers have risen an estimated 86 percent from mid-1990 costs. Just to outfit a 35-member patrol academy, DPS estimates it would spend $4.5 million on 35 patrol units to be given to troopers already in the field while older units would be given to the recruits.

So while the state is woefully underfunding OHP — not even keeping it at 1990 levels of support — taxpayers continue to subsidize losses at state golf courses to the tune of $400,000 per year out of tourism dollars, according to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. And that is just one example of how taxpayer funds are used, see the OCPA’s upcoming 2013 budget report for more.

If we are to continue with the system of law enforcement we have now, then Oklahomans should demand that their Legislature appropriately fund this core function of government. It will take time to right this situation, but starting with eliminating wasteful spending by state government and putting it toward public safety is a good place to start.