Highway Patrol: Public safety in jeopardy

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August 4, 2011 8:58:02 AM PDT
The North Carolina Highway Patrol is facing millions in budget cuts while it's already down nearly 130 troopers. Agency officials say the problem is so bad the public's safety is in jeopardy.

A training class to add more troopers is underway, but a class scheduled for September is postponed indefinitely because of budget cuts. The Patrol says the class graduating in two weeks won't put a dent in the shortage.

There are applicants. Cadet Laura Peele says becoming a trooper is something she has thought about doing since she was a child.

"My parents are involved in fire and rescue work where I live in Martin County, and I've gone to several accidents and have had interactions with several troopers where I live," Peele explained.

But when Peele and her class graduate from the seven-month course, the Highway Patrol will have lost more troopers to attrition than its gaining - all while facing more than $15 million in cuts over the next two years.

NCHP spokesperson Sergeant Jeff Gordon says that could put the public in danger.

"For me to sit here and say that it's not, I wouldn't be telling the truth," Gordon said. "Absolutely, because any time you have less manpower on the highways, you're not going to have those eyes and ears that are out there."

The cuts also mean the patrol cars and all the equipment needed inside won't be replaced as often, and there's a salary freeze.

On top of the impact from state budget cuts, the economy also has people looking for higher paying jobs than a career with the Highway Patrol.

"People are choosing to go to different professions, and we're really struggling in the law enforcement field to fill those spots," Gordon added.

The nature of the job can be a turnoff. It's something Cadet Peele says she thinks about.

"That you'll go up to a vehicle and they could possibly kill you or severely hurt you," she said. "Having to notify parents that their children were killed."

She says the rewards like giving back to the community and protecting the public will be worth it even if a shortage means she won't have a lot of help.

"It's definitely a challenge but the challenge is worth it," Peele said.

To become a trooper you have to be between 21 and 31 years old. The starting salary is about $34,000 a year.

While the Patrol says it's hiring, it's unclear how long landing a job will take with the budget cuts. The Patrol says that uncertainty presents another challenge in terms of finding good recruits.

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