RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)–The Virginia State Police are pushing for millions in federal COVID-19 relief funding to address severe staff shortages, roll out body cameras and replace helicopters.
The General Assembly will decide how many of those requests to fulfill using $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding during a special session starting Aug. 2.
Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Wayne Huggins said their top priority is putting money towards recruiting and retaining state troopers.
“We need to start this process of stopping the hemorrhaging today because we are being asked to do more and more,” Huggins said.
He said there are currently 334 vacancies throughout the agency, with an additional 273 troopers eligible to retire. Meanwhile, Huggins said applications are down by 40 percent.
Huggins believes non-competitive pay and mandatory overtime are largely to blame. For example, as it stands, he said campus police at Virginia Commonwealth University are being offered a larger starting salary than state troopers.
“It’s costing taxpayers a tremendous amount of money to train these troopers only to have them turn around and go somewhere else,” he said. “The most recent estimate I have is that it costs $108,000 to recruit and retain a new trooper.”
Initially, Huggins said VSP requested $18.6 million in annual funding to address this issue. He said the plan is to use ARPA funding at first and then to ask the General Assembly to maintain the investment with state dollars.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) is introducing an even larger proposal of $43.1 million.
“What the state police originally asked for was a bare minimum just to try to put a band-aid on a sucking chest wound,” Reeves said. “But, I’ll say it, they are in crisis mode.”
Reeves described his proposal as realistic. He believes it will win bipartisan support, though the dollar amount may fluctuate.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian and Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell both declined to comment on various funding requests on Tuesday.
In a statement, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said, “Governor Northam is grateful for the work of the Virginia State Police—which is why he included an 8% pay raise for VSP officers in the recently-enacted budget. Our administration has made comprehensive criminal justice reform a priority, and we are continuing to review these and other funding requests in advance of the August 2nd special session.”
Increasing pay is one of more than a dozen requests listed by VSP in an ARPA wish list submitted to the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget (DPB).
The law enforcement agency is also asking for nearly $21 million in one-time funding would replace two aging helicopters used for emergency medical air ambulance transportation throughout Virginia.
Huggins said the helicopters are becoming unsafe due to unacceptable downtime, which has adversely impacted the department’s ability to provide this service during the pandemic.
Additionally, VSP is seeking nearly $19 million over four years to fully deploy body cameras. Right now, Huggins said they are used in certain circumstances but VSP doesn’t have enough to equip their patrol force.
However, it’s not entirely clear that this request will fit the spending guidelines laid out for federal coronavirus relief.
VSP justified the proposal to DPB saying, “Socially vulnerable populations have seen the greatest impact from COVID-19, and many such communities are also experiencing among the lowest rates of vaccine acceptance due to fears and skepticism towards government resulting from systemic marginalization. Body cameras foster transparency, which will establish trust in government and mitigate future spread of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.”
When asked about this, Huggins said, “In terms of the nexus between COVID and body cameras, I’m not sure I can make that connection.”
The proposal comes as some advocates continue to argue police should be “defunded” and investments should be shifted elsewhere, though several Democratic leaders in Virginia have rejected that.
The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP’s Executive Director Da’Quan Love fears some of VSP’s requests could take away from other spending priorities.
“There needs to be accountability before additional funds are given,” Love said. “Rather than spending this one-time federal funding on generalized expenditures, Virginia should be making historic and drastic investments in its citizens like supporting our five HBCUs here in this Commonwealth, not giving the Virginia State Police another helicopter.”