Emergency calls going unanswered amid severe OSP trooper shortage

Oregon State Police Sgt. Yvette Shephard started with the agency in 1994. At that time, there were troopers on duty 24 hours a day. Today, Shephard says the number of hours troopers are on duty has dropped to 22. (KATU Photo)

Oregon State Police has half the staff it did in 1980, while the state has added more than 1.5 million in population.

The drop in staffing has had a range of implications, from fewer cops on highways and secondary routes to a growing number of unanswered calls for help.

Last year, the agency didn’t get to a record 11,880 calls for service. That included everything from drunken driving complaints and disabled vehicle calls to responding to requests for help from other police agencies.

OSP says this has been the deadliest year on Oregon's roads. The number of fatal car crashes is double digits and fatal motorcycle wrecks are up almost 100 percent.

In 1980, there were 624 troopers and sergeants in the field. Today, the number is down to 381. Since 1980, 12 offices around the state have closed or been consolidated.

OSP's largest patrol office, in Portland, doesn't even have 24-hour patrols. The office covers Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, and all the way to Cascade Locks and Government Camp.

Sgt. Yvette Shephard said that hasn't always been the case.

"When I came on in 1994, we used to be a 24-hour office," she said. "Now, we're a 22-hour office. So, when things happen after 2 a.m., we either have to call someone out or refer the call to another agency because we're just not there."

On Friday night, Shephard had four troopers on duty. She was the lone sergeant.

"Why I signed up for this job, is to be there for people," she said. "We try to do the best that we can. We understand that we are shorthanded. To complain about it, is not going to do anything."

The severe shortage means troopers are assigned general patrol areas and rarely visit secondary highways, which is where OSP is seeing an 80-percent jump in fatal crashes.

"Just to have one car drive through every once in a while, is enough to deter bad behavior," bad behavior like speeding and illegal passing Shephard said. "Just think if we had two or three!"

The staffing problem began in the early 1980s, when lawmakers changed how OSP was funded. The agency had a dedicated stream of revenue through the state's highway fund. Now, the money comes out of the state's general fund, which is shared among many other state programs and needs.

OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton plans to ask the Legislature for additional funding next year.

The agency is asking for a dedicated $64 million over a 10-year period. The proposal could add 200 troopers and 40 sergeants, increasing the number of troopers per 100,000 Oregonians from eight to 15.

"That’s all we asked our citizens, to be a little bit more patient with us," Shephard said. "We are getting there; we’re doing our best with what we have."

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