OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Highway Patrol is understaffed and struggling to accomplish its statewide public safety mission due to declining revenue that's led to reductions in staff and restricted travel, according to the state's commissioner of public safety.
Cost-cutting measures will help the state's premier law enforcement agency meet its onerous budget requirements. But it will also impede on proactively enforcing traffic regulations on nearly 112,000 miles of roads and highways, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael C. Thompson told The Associated Press on Monday.
Further budget cuts may force the patrol to consider the unthinkable — reducing its already depleted number of uniformed troopers.
"None of us want to be at the helm when we have to furlough troopers, because it's never been done in the history of the Department of Public Safety," Thompson said. "That would be horrific."
To that end, the agency is seeking $6 million in supplemental funds this year to help it reverse some of the cuts it has already made. But it and other agencies that saw their current fiscal year's budgets slashed due to the state's $1.3 billion shortfall last year will have to wait until the Legislature convenes in February to see whether their budget requests will be approved.
"It's definitely going to be another challenging year," Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Kim David, R-Porter, said of the up to $700 million deficit the state faces in the 2017-2018 fiscal year — caused largely by low energy prices. "Times are really tough for our law enforcement officers right now. The last thing we want is to make them think they are not appreciated. They are."
Oklahoma City Republican Rep. Jon Echols, floor leader of the House, called public safety a "bipartisan issue," noting that while there's lots of competition for state money, "historically, the Legislature has issued supplementals."
With just 803 troopers to protect an area of more than 69,000 square miles of land, rivers and lakes, the patrol is 300 troopers short of its full complement of 1,104 and smaller than the Oklahoma City Police Department, which has a uniformed force of about 1,150 officers. The minimum number of troopers needed to adequately patrol the state is 950, according to Col. Rick Adams, chief of the patrol.
"We are the one resident agency that's connected to everybody, around the clock," Adams said. "When things are burning, when people are in need, when floodwaters are rising, when towns have been destroyed, we're always there."
The highway patrol's duties include apprehending dangerous criminal suspects like Michael Vance, the 38-year-old man who was the focus of a weeklong, statewide manhunt in October after killing two relatives and shooting three law enforcement officers. Vance was shot to death by state troopers in western Oklahoma.
And with fewer troopers on the road, those out there are forced to react to traffic collisions rather than patrol for reckless drivers and help stranded motorists.
"We've gone completely into a defensive posture right now," Adams said. "To say that lives are at risk is an understatement."
The patrol is smaller than it was when Thompson joined the force in 1990, when there were 825 troopers. And with more than 200 troopers that are retirement-eligible, the patrol is likely to shrink even more by 2018 — the earliest a Highway Patrol Academy can be convened to help replenish its numbers, the commissioner said.
"The state has grown, but the highway patrol hasn't grown with it," Thompson added.
The DPS budget was trimmed 11 percent to about $89 million earlier this year, and the agency has asked for a $110 million budget for the next fiscal year.
To reduce expenses, the patrol earlier this month placed a 100-mile daily limit by highway patrol vehicles, reduced the number of hours flown by agency aircraft and altered overnight dispatch operations.
It had already postponed the planned expansion of a statewide radio system, left vacant driver's license examiner positions and lost 32 employees through voluntary buyouts. Five of them were driving compliance officers, who helped people regain their suspended licenses and accounted for 54,000 hearings in 2015 — a workload that will have to be absorbed by the remaining 13.
"Those are some of the things that are going to cause frustration for the public. They're going to have to wait longer," he said.