Audit: Oregon State Police should change how it determines staffing needs

Auditors say a simple ratio of troopers to residents isn’t good enough

By: - January 14, 2022 11:35 am

OSP on the road in December 2021/Oregon State Police photo

Oregon State Police should use workload, not the state’s population, to decide how many troopers it needs, state auditors said in a report released Friday. 

The 33-page report from the Secretary of State’s Audits Division notes that OSP staffing declined for decades beginning in 1980, when a voter-approved tax measure shifted the department’s funding source from gas taxes to the general fund. 

The agency received $578 million in the 2021-23 budget. Unlike state troopers in other states who solely patrol highways, OSP also investigates crimes, monitors casinos, operates forensic labs and enforces fish and game laws. 

“While it is unclear how many troopers OSP actually needs, it does not appear OSP currently has enough to accomplish all of its broad and varied duties in a safe and timely manner,” the report said. “Additionally, increased trooper presence on state highways and interstates may reduce accidents and fatalities.” 

In 1980, the agency had 665 sworn officers, compared to 459 today, according to the report. Oregon’s population growth in the intervening years meant that the ratio of officers to Oregonians went from one officer per 4,000 residents to one per 9,300 residents. 

Oregon State Police frequently uses that ratio to make its case for more funding, but it may not be the best approach, said Ian Green, the audit manager in charge of the report.

“They’re looking at a population-based approach, essentially a ratio of troopers to Oregon’s population,” Green said. “What we found through our work looking at best practices out there is that if they analyze their workload to develop their budget requests, it’s a lot more accurate of a model to develop their staffing needs than just a pure ratio of population to trooper levels.”

OSP stands to lose more money over the coming years after voters approved a 2020 ballot measure that shifted revenue from recreational marijuana sales from law enforcement to behavioral health services. The Legislature backfilled the $40 million the agency would have lost during the current two-year budget cycle, but the shift means OSP will have to compete with other agencies for money from the state’s general budget.

The agency also had more demands over the past few years because of wildfires and civil unrest. According to the report, nightly riots in Portland cost OSP $2.5 million in overtime, travel and personal protective gear, while the agency’s assistance with wildfires cost $700,000. The legislative Emergency Board approved that supplemental funding in December 2020. 

Green said auditors found that some State Police regions did a good job analyzing staffing, while other area commanders do not. Auditors recommended that the agency develop a consistent policy to analyze needs.

That kind of analysis could also capture regional differences in police needs, he said. For instance, state police in southern Oregon say they’re spending more time responding to illegal marijuana farms, which distracts from other duties. 

“If troopers in southern Oregon are spending their time on those, they’re getting pulled away from other duties,” Green said. “You can say that’s X hours off of the state highways where they’re now dealing with these illegal grows, so you could capture any understaffing through that.”

Existing analysis shows that state troopers were unable to respond to 10% of their calls during the summer months in 2020 when officers were called away to respond to wildfires or unrest in Portland, principal auditor Kyle Rossi said. 

The agency agreed with the audit’s findings, Capt. Cord Wood wrote in a letter appended to the report. The department will work on changing its staffing need analysis by this June to be prepared for the next budget cycle, he wrote. 

Friday’s audit is the second of several planned to look at law enforcement and public safety. A December audit found that the state agency in charge of investigating police misconduct defers too much to local police agencies, and a report on the state’s approach to domestic terrorism and violent extremism is expected in the coming weeks.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.