“To me they’re a godsend,” said Vidalia Police Chief Frank Waits, the president of the Georgia Chiefs of Police.
On Friday, as Waits was preparing for a crowd of 50,000 at next weekend’s Vidalia Onion Festival and air show, he said he relies on the Georgia State Patrol as an auxiliary to his own force.
Last year, troopers took primary responsibility for paperwork and investigations at 51,521 accidents, a 17 percent increase from the previous year. Local deputy sheriffs or police officers might have been on hand directing traffic, but troopers were the on-scene quarterback.
That’s a 28 percent increase in five years, according to a Morris News analysis of state figures.
The workload of the ordinary trooper increased as well because the force declined during recent years of tight budgets after the recession. While the number of wrecks processed rose, the trooper ranks shrank.
As a result, the average trooper is juggling 15 more wrecks per year, a 39 percent spike in workload since 2007. And not all officers are on the road. Some have administrative duties. Others protect state officials and facilities.
Last year, the average trooper responded to 66 accidents, a 15 percent jump from 2011.
The State Patrol’s new commander, Col. Mark McDonough, is emphasizing responding to accidents in support of local law enforcement agencies. He argues that is the core mission of the agency, to help local cops.
“We should have a reputation for moving toward the work and not moving away from the work,” he said.
Only this year has the number of troopers nearly returned to its levels before budget cuts. There are now 816 officers in the State Patrol, just one less than the peak roll call in 2009. In 2010 it fell to 791 and then bottomed out at 762 the next year.
The agency expects to be busier as truck traffic increases in coming years.
The patrol is adding 28 troopers specifically to cope with the increased truck traffic forecast on Interstates 16, 75 and 95 as a result of planned deepening of the Savannah River to accommodate bigger ships with more freight containers that will mostly wind up on highways.
In recent years, the shrunken trooper ranks has occasionally required local agencies grappling with their own manpower shortages to prioritize wreck responses, according to Capt. Ron Thurmond of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
“Most of the time it’s where it can be worked around where service is not interrupted,” he said.
When major accidents occur, many local agencies expect the State Patrol to regularly take the lead.
“We use them if it’s a wreck with serious injuries or we think there is going to be litigation,” Thurmond said.
Established 75 years ago, the Georgia State Patrol doesn’t investigate murders, answer calls for burglar alarms or conduct undercover drug stings. Yet it still makes as many as 23,000 arrests yearly for those crimes and others.
“Their law-enforcement function originates from traffic enforcement. You find a lot of fugitives, drugs and so forth from traffic enforcement,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association.
An hour or so spent sorting out a wreck is time that trooper isn’t patrolling the roads. Even so, McDonough believes the visibility at wreck scenes makes an impression on the driving public.
“Hopefully over time, we’re hoping that their presence alone will help lower the crashes there,” he said.