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The arrival of a new year is typically seen as a time of positive change, but as 2011 dawns, state police officials are braced for what they see as a bad situation about to get worse, even in Southwest Virginia.
On Jan. 1, their sworn ranks of 262 uniformed personnel are scheduled to shrink by another 13 across the state because of retirements. That drop comes at a time when officials say their numbers are already too lean.
"We're at a pretty critical situation right now," Virginia Superintendent Col. Stephen Flaherty said. "In some areas of the state, we've got less troopers on the road now than we had 20 years ago. And the demands are certainly greater than they were back then.
"You have troopers working duty posts that are hundreds of square miles, and a lot of times, they're working them by themselves."
The Galax area office has three vacant trooper positions out of 16 — two in Carroll and one in Grayson County, according to Corrine Geller, spokeswoman for the state police. That leaves 13 troopers to cover the two counties around the clock — a challenge by any measure.
"Grayson and Carroll counties total 819 square miles of land ... and include 24 miles of I-77," she noted.
With the current staffing levels, there's no trooper patrolling the roads in Grayson County after midnight, Geller added. Off-duty troopers are kept on-call in case a need arises or the trooper in Carroll may respond, maybe from quite a distance.
"According to First Sgt. Mike Musser, the last time the area was at full staff of 16 was in 1996," Geller said. "The number of positions authorized for that area also hasn't increased in those 15 years, despite increases in interstate travel and calls for service."
The department has the authority to fill its thinning ranks statewide, but the budget cuts of the past four years have restricted the flow of new troopers freshly graduated from training academies.
It costs an average of $250,000 a month to operate an academy class, and classes serve about 70 trainees, culled from what Flaherty said is usually a pool of about 1,000 applicants. Virginia State Troopers go through 34 weeks of academy training and eight weeks of field training.
Flaherty said the only solution is more money for training.
Last month, Gov. Bob McDonnell asked the General Assembly to allocate $7 million for trooper training over the next two years. Officials say that move will introduce 72 new troopers into the field by summer, followed by subsequent class graduations later this year and in early 2012. But the department loses an average of four personnel a month to attrition, meaning levels will fall more still before a refill arrives.
"This hasn't happened overnight," said Flaherty. "We had all our funded positions filled back in October 2005. Of course, in 2006 came the economic situation for the country and the commonwealth and we began to lose ground. It's taken its toll and we've had to redirect money."
The number of sworn positions within Virginia's state police ranks has also remained the same since 1997, according to a recent report by The Associated Press.
State Police Division 6, based in Salem, serves parts of 14 counties, including Alleghany, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Montgomery, Floyd, Bedford, Franklin and Roanoke.
The division is authorized to have 177 troopers and supervisors, but currently operates with 23 vacancies. Area 40 of Division 6, which consists of Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Floyd counties — and at 1,350 square miles is the largest area in the Salem division — has eight trooper vacancies and two sergeant vacancies.
The entire division lost two of its staff on Jan. 1, when troopers from Henry and Rockbridge counties retired.
"We back them up and they back us," said Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt, also a regional representative for the Virginia Sheriffs' Association.
He recalled that when he joined the sheriff's office in 1976, Montgomery County's state trooper division had the same number of troopers then as it does today, even as it patrols a broader and more complex area.
"There's certainly a larger call for law enforcement," said Whitt, whose son is a state trooper working out of Rockbridge County. "Any attrition in law enforcement is just another invitation for criminals in society to take advantage."
According to an internal report, the VSP Manpower Augmentation Study, published in October, even the levels to which supervisors are allowed to fill their ranks are generally below what officials recommend.
The augmentation study suggests that Roanoke County have 19 troopers, but that area is currently authorized to have 13. Montgomery, Highland and Pittsylvania are three troopers below what the report recommends.
Five counties in Southwest Virginia still don't have troopers patrolling after midnight. When incidents arise in those localities, they usually fall to local law enforcement or to state police on duty in neighboring counties.
In some cases, off-duty troopers are called in, increasing the amount of time it takes to investigate vehicle crashes and extending road closure times.
And while some drivers might relish the thought of fewer smokeys on the road, officials say the force handles more than just speed control.
"A lot of people see 'state police' and think it's just the trooper on the side of the interstate," Geller said. "We also have other responsibilities that have expanded over the years."
During the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech, she said, "We were the lead at Norris Hall."