I was disappointed to learn recently that Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed cutting 27 positions from the Highway Patrol as part of his budget proposal for the upcoming biennium. As a former police officer and police chief, I recognize the public safety impacts that a proposal like this would have. It is my strong opinion that this proposal would have a disastrous impact on public safety in an era where highway deaths are increasing on our Interstate highways and at a time when rural Montana is increasingly dependent on our Troopers to keep their communities safe.
I also know how hard it is to serve as a police officer in this day and age. At a time when some have chosen to disrespect the service of those who wear a badge, I was disappointed that no one from the governor’s office had the foresight to contact the Highway Patrol to let them know that they weren’t on the governor’s list of funding priorities. It is concerning to me that many of these Troopers learned of this proposal, like many of us, by reading it in the newspaper. It doesn’t send them the message that their service is valued.
In my opinion, this was a phone call that these families deserved and it’s a call that that should have been made by the governor to that department. That lack of respect for the service of these men and women is something that has the potential to impact recruitment and retention in the future as well as morale for the men and women who will be working today and tonight across our state.
Twenty-two of these 27 positions are currently filled with flesh and blood officers, many of whom are in or are nearly finishing their initial training after committing to serving the department. I am sure they must question why it doesn’t appear the governor applied the same sharp knife to cuts in his own office and I don’t believe any of his staff will lose their jobs.
Just days after Sergeant Bennet and Trooper Winchell of the Highway Patrol received awards for bravery in the line of duty and a few days before the department mourned the anniversary of the death of Trooper David DeLaittre, these officers are left to wonder about their future. They must wonder if we care enough about their mission to set aside politics and show them the same respect and commitment that we expect from them in guarding our safety.
I want to be clear about sending a strong message to the men and women of the Montana Highway Patrol in letting them know that I and many of my colleagues place a high value on them, their families and their service. We are eternally grateful for their commitment to our state and we will work tirelessly to ensure they have the people and tools to accomplish their mission. In a session where difficult decisions will need to be made we will place a high value on the important public safety role of the Highway Patrol and one that reflects the respect we have for you.
Thank you to the members of the Montana Highway Patrol for your service and please know that there are many of us in the Legislature that will do all we can to support you in your mission.
Frank Garner is a state representative from Kalispell and former police chief.