Updated September 20, 2021 - 12:38 pm
The Nevada Highway Patrol is experiencing a mass exodus of troopers seeking better pay and benefits at other law enforcement agencies in 2021, according to the union that represents state troopers.
“Our biggest frustration now is staffing and turnover,” said Wayne Dice, the Southern Nevada liaison for the Nevada Police Union, which represents troopers as well as Nevada Capitol Police, state parole and probation officers, fire marshals, game wardens, park rangers, university police and public safety workers.
The Nevada Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Highway Patrol, said in an email to the newspaper that 35 troopers left the agency in 2020. As of Wednesday, 57 had departed from the Highway Patrol in 2021, a 63 percent increase from the year prior with more than three months remaining in the year.
“We’ve had a lot of turnover for a long time, but now it is really getting worse,” Dice said.
Dice said the departures will keep rising through December. From 2017 to 2020, the Department of Public Safety said, 17 percent of state officers who departed left for jobs with other city or county law enforcement agencies. In regards to troopers leaving this year, Dice said he knows that the majority are headed to other police agencies because he and other union leaders have talked to them about why they are leaving.
“We have six confirmed retirements by Dec. 1 and an additional nine people leaving for medical reasons or going to Metro or (Clark County) school district police,” Dice said, adding that troopers are applying for openings with the Metropolitan Police Department for higher pay and better benefits.
Traffic deaths rising
The defections come as traffic fatalities across Nevada are up 25 percent so far this year. There have been 243 traffic fatalities as of Wednesday, compared with 193 during the same time in 2020, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety.
“The biggest reason our traffic fatalities are up is because we are so short-staffed,” Dice said. “It is a lack of proactive enforcement.”
Dice, who spoke in his role as a representative and not in his capacity as a Highway Patrol sergeant, said some of the trooper departures are traditional retirements, A majority, though, are a result of lower pay and benefits offered at the Highway Patrol when compared to other agencies, he said.
An entry-level Department of Public Safety officer’s starting salary is $46,666 when participating in the state’s employer-paid retirement plan. A higher salary of $53,598 is available for new hires under an “employer/employee paid” retirement contribution, the department said.
Dice said that after troopers contribute to their retirement through the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System, of PERS, their take-home pay averages roughly “$1,200 every two weeks.”
“Almost 23 percent of our pay goes toward retirement, versus working (for) Henderson, Metro, some other county,” Dice said. “They pay their employees’ PERS. There is a big discrepancy.”
Spokeswoman Kim Smith said the Department of Public Safety did not have anyone available for an interview for this story.
However, a presentation made by the department to state legislators this year makes clear the agency knows it has a serious retention problem with law enforcement officers.
The department said its overall officer turnover rate was 135 percent in 2020, with 60 cadets hired while 81 officers departed from the agency. In 2019, the turnover rate was 109 percent, and the year prior it was 127 percent.
The department also presented legislators with a comparison of salaries for its officers and other agencies such as Henderson and Las Vegas police.
According to the department, a sergeant’s base salary ranges from $55,123 to $82,872. A Metro sergeant’s base salary ranges from $80,974 to $115,232, and a Henderson sergeant’s base salary ranges from $100,724 to $122,460.
The turnover also has an effect on public safety on Nevada roads.
“Staff must carry more assignments and duties, cover more area and work more overtime,” the department wrote in a PowerPoint presentation provided to legislators by department Director George Togliatti and Deputy Director Sheri Brueggemann.
“Most highways are not covered on graveyard,” the department said.
The department also said “NHP response time to calls for service will continue to increase” and that heavy caseloads for parole and probation officers make it “extremely difficult to engage in quality assistance for the Parolees/Probationers they supervise.”
The department said during the presentation that it engages in comprehensive recruitment efforts to bring in more troopers. The agency held 45 career fairs in a 13-month period starting in 2019.
Dice said the push for better pay and staffing for the Highway Patrol, as well as other state law enforcement officers, has “fallen on deaf ears year after year” in the Legislature, leading to low morale.
“For us it is hard,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of applicants that are applying for the Highway Patrol in the last couple of years. (They) are leaving for civilian jobs (with) better pay, better benefits, better retirement. We can’t compete against other agencies. Right now our staffing levels are probably at an all-time low.”