“Public safety crisis,” State troopers prepare for ‘sinister’ budget cuts

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Department of Public Safety and Highway Patrol have dealt with budget cuts before. But, something about the threat of a 14.5 percent trimming feels different this year.

"We have to protect the public, and we have to protect the citizens we serve and we have to look after the men and women of our organization and their families that we're trying to perform these missions with us," said OHP Chief Ricky Adams. "If we would have to absorb a 15 percent budget cut, we have to ask ourselves internally: 'Which of these missions can we no longer do?'"

Last week, lawmakers asked each state agency to think about how it would handle a nearly 15 percent budget reduction, should it come to that.

The state is working to fill a nearly $900 million budget hole.

For OHP, that could mean slashing more than 100 positions, while also deciding between which resources to deploy and keep at optimal staffing levels.

"Each time we have to go through one of these cuts, we have to cannibalize one of our missions," Adams said. "Regardless of what budget is dealt to us, we are going to accomplish the mission. We're going to use all of our energy, to the last breath we have, to perform all of the responsibilities we're given as an organization."

Adams said he could point to hundreds of situations in the past that would have had different outcomes if the budget were cut as deep as proposed.

But, few stick out as much as the takedown of fugitive Michael Vance, who sparked a statewide manhunt in October, after police said he killed two people, shot two police officers and several others.

"He was minutes - literally minutes - away from slipping outside of the perimeter and being away to probably continue his rampage," Adams said. "I believe he probably would have shot somebody else during a traffic stop, robbed another vehicle and continued to pillage [with a decreased budget]."

It's doubtful OHP would have been able to put a helicopter in the air, Adams said, and it would have been much more difficult to mobilize special forces from around the state.

OHP and DPS are already shouldering the burdens of decreased budgets.

The highway patrol has fewer troopers now (795) than it did in 1990 (845).

About one-in-four troopers is eligible for retirement, Adams said, and without funding to furnish training academies, it will be that much harder to replenish.

Currently, the dive team is depleted, Adams said, and fewer troopers are being asked to patrol larger areas.

"The budget cuts limits our public service to the people, okay?" said Tpr. Rodney Rideaux. "We can't patrol like we normally would patrol, our call response time would be longer than normal. How I look at it is, just think about your mother or your loved one on the side of the roadway, and they're broke down and it's going to take longer for us to get to them. Or, we may not even get to them, because we may have a different call we're called out to."

DPS also estimates budget cuts will mean longer waits for driver's licenses.

Adams calls it a "public safety crisis" but promised Thursday troopers will continue to respond to the best of their ability.

"Regardless of what budget is dealt to us, we are going to accomplish the mission," he said. "We're going to use all of our energy, to the last breath we have, to perform all of the responsibilities we're given as an organization."

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