GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – On a major travel holiday, with an estimated 700,000 people on South Carolina roads for the four-day Fourth of July weekend, the South Carolina Highway patrol deployed every available trooper.
Our own 7News coverage described the agency as being on “high alert” with troopers out in “full force.”
But, the highway patrol hasn’t been at full force in years and that chronic staffing shortage has put drivers, and the troopers themselves, in danger.
“It makes you feel like you have failed,” a former dispatch supervisor said. “I have left and gone home many a day and felt the whole day was a failure.”
The former supervisor, who asked that we not reveal his name, worked for the state for more than a decade before taking another law enforcement job.
Dispatchers, like him, are based on Villa Road in Greenville — a single office that handles 911 calls and trooper communications for 12 Upstate counties.
Often staffed with as few as three people per 12-hour shift, they said they are so overworked they feel some life and death emergencies, like impaired interstate drivers, are not only delayed, but sometimes the troopers on the road never hear them at all.
“Somebody calls and says ‘I see a drunk driver,’ gets a 911 dispatcher, a call never gets to a trooper,” we asked.
“A lot of times it doesn’t,” the former dispatcher said.
As of this May, the Department of Public Safety told us there were only 73 full-time dispatchers working statewide.
Forty percent of dispatcher jobs remain vacant, which totals 44 unfilled jobs.
That means that drunk drivers and wanted criminals can get away scot-free.
“When you have 12 counties on three radios, something is gonna get missed,” the former dispatcher said. “A wanted person is gonna get missed.”
And it’s not much better on the roads.
In May, there were 816 full-time troopers with another 53 still in training and 99 vacant jobs.
One-hundred and twenty-nine full-time troopers either resigned, retired or were let go in just 12 months.
“They’re so unhappy and they’re under so much pressure that they’re looking to go places,” Rep. Eddie Tallon said. “They’re going to sheriff’s offices, they’re going to police offices, they’re leaving altogether.”
Tallon, a retired South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agent has been critical of highway patrol management for years.
In 2016, Tallon chaired oversight hearings looking into the agency, which he now says is unable to perform the basic functions of law enforcement.
“Their core function is to provide highway safety,” Tallon said. “That’s what their mission is in South Carolina.”
“Are they doing that?” we asked.
“No,” he said.
Tallon believes the staffing problems stem from critically low morale.
Troopers, he said, second-guess their decisions, afraid of what he calls uneven and unfair discipline under the leadership of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith.
In one hearing, a patrol sergeant with 21 years of state service, handed his resignation directly to Smith.
“I’m turning in my letter of resignation because I cannot effectively do my job,” the trooper said.
Tallon said with staffing already so short, troopers lives are on the line.
“You think a trooper might get killed because of the management?” we asked.
“Yeah, I think so. I think they think that. In fact, I know they think that,” Tallon said. “I’ve had them tell me they’ll drive up to a car and stop a car, and, you know, there may be five, six people in the car, and they’ll get in the car and drive off because they don’t want to put themselves in a position to get hurt.”
We asked to speak with Director Smith, but his office denied the request, instead providing Capt. Kelley Hughes to take our questions.
“Does this highway patrol, do troopers have confidence in the director of the agency right now?” we asked.
“I’m just one of about 816 troopers,” Hughes said. “I don’t, obviously, know every trooper in the state. I can’t answer that question.”
Hughes argues the staffing shortage is a problem for all law enforcement agencies and that’s true.
But highway patrol has been especially challenging. In fact, we went to one recruitment event in Spartanburg, where we watched and waited for more than an hour.
Nobody, not one person, applied.
“It’s difficult to hire, it really is,” Hughes said. “Unless you’ve got money to offer, it’s difficult to hire, especially in the Greenville area of the state.”
Through the beginning of this month, DPS said 472 people have died on South Carolina roads, 10 of those being on the busy Fourth of July holiday.
And more troopers told us that they plan to walk away from the job, which is what the former dispatcher did back in March.
“It gets to the point where the troopers, I don’t want to say afraid of their job, but don’t do their job 100 percent simply because it’s too dangerous,” the former dispatcher said. “I didn’t sign up for co-workers to die. I signed up to help people.”
In response to trooper concerns expressed to Rep. Tallon, Hughes said “our citation and crash statistics, however, do no support the assertion that ‘troopers are afraid to do their jobs.'”
“Statistics in the Troop Three area show that troopers are writing more tickets, arresting more impaired drivers and making more public contacts with pedestrians and distracted drivers, which has led to a decrease in fatalities and overall collisions in the first half of 2019.”
We emailed a set of questions to the Department of Public Safety and they emailed the following responses:
We reached out to Gov. Henry McMaster’s office for comment on whether DPS Director Smith has the full confidence of the governor.
Communications Director Brian Symmes sent the following statement on behalf of the governor:
“Governor McMaster supports Director Smith and his ongoing efforts to address the concerns that members of the General Assembly have raised,” Symmes said.