The Mississippi Highway Patrol is facing a shortage of state troopers, so the governor is asking lawmakers to fund a trooper school to boost numbers.
Gov. Phil Bryant said the department is 160 to 170 troopers short of its allotted 650, and 149 others are eligible for retirement.
"Now is the time," Bryant said. "We can't wait any longer. Lives are at stake on highways. The motoring public is at danger because we do not have enough troopers on the highway to protect those that we are sworn to protect."
In the Pine Belt, Troop J covers nine counties and about 1,700 miles of highways. Master Sgt. Brent Barfield, public affairs officer for Troop J, said his district has about 22 troopers who patrol roads, but when troopers are broken into day and night shifts and others are on days off, sometimes as few as five troopers cover the Pine Belt.
"We've got troopers that are covering, you know, two and three counties," Barfield said. "The workload gets bigger and bigger, but you know, us as troopers, on the road, we just go do it. I mean, that's what we have to do."
He said more troopers would lighten the load on current staff and improve safety for drivers.
"By adding extra manpower onto the Highway Patrol, that reduces response time to accidents," Barfield said. "Troopers are not having to come from two or three counties over. Our ultimate goal is to reduce traffic crashes, injuries, as well as fatalities."
Barfield said on top of crashes, accident investigations and enforcement, troopers help any other agency that requests assistance. He said especially in the Pine Belt, deputies often help other smaller police and sheriff's departments.
"A lot of times, these rural counties only have one or two or three deputies that are working," he said. "So the trooper that's assigned to county or the next county over, in the event that something happens, that trooper is very, very vital, not only to that agency that's requesting it, but as well as the public there. It's just another law enforcement officer that's filling that void to assist in any way they can. Troopers are very, very important in the state of Mississippi."
Rep. Brad Touchstone (R-Lamar County) said he understands how important troopers are to the Pine Belt.
"As a county prosecutor here for five years, I can attest personally to how important they are to our communities, particularly in Lamar County where we have a very small municipal footprint, and we depend largely on our sheriff's department and our highway patrol to provide our public safety," Touchstone said.
Barfield said trooper schools typically enroll about 75 members with another 75 on standby and cost almost $7 million, which is why Sen. Joey Fillingane (R-Sumrall) said lawmakers do not fund a school each year.
"It's a very expensive undertaking, which is the reason we don't do it every year, but at the same time, the need is there clearly," Fillingane said. "The troopers do a great job with the limited resources they have."
Bryant said he has worked with the Department of Public Safety and thinks the state has "sufficient funds" to help fund a trooper school.
Along with considering funding for a trooper school this year, Fillingane said lawmakers should also consider a some kind of system to fund schools more regularly.
"We don't want to leave the roadways across the state unprotected, and so I certainly think we need to look at not only a trooper school, but perhaps a mechanism for having more of a regular schooling, maybe every other year or something, so that we don't get into that situation again," Fillingane said.
Barfield said the last trooper school was held in 2015, and before that, 2011.
Across the state, Barfield said 328 troopers are divided among the eight districts to patrol almost 11,000 miles of highway throughout Mississippi.
"Anytime that we're able to get a trooper school or a patrol school and get more men out on the road, the people in uniform are very, very grateful," Barfield said.