By Maayan Schechter
The State (Columbia, S.C.)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. David Whatley wanted to hand his resignation letter to Gov. Henry McMaster’s office.
Instead, near tears, Whatley handed his letter of resignation to his boss, S.C. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith, in front of S.C. House members Monday.
Whatley — a nearly 29-year employee of Highway Patrol and a combat veteran — said he is just one of many state troopers who are unhappy with the state agency’s handling of internal matters and its leadership.
For some who leave, low pay is an issue, Whatley said. The starting salary for a trainee S.C. trooper is about $38,000 a year. That increases to $42,100 after they complete training.
But declining morale within Highway Patrol is the bigger issue, the Aiken native said of the agency, where troopers determine whether a speeding motorists or drunken drivers are stopped.
A 2017 study of the Department of Public Safety cited pay as the top reason employees left, followed by low morale. Fear of retaliation, retribution and reprimands, as well as scare tactics and threats also were among the main concerns that employees have.
“We, the citizens of South Carolina, and the taxpayers are getting shortchanged, shortchanged by the Department of Public Safety,” said state Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg.
For the past two years, Public Safety has been under fire from state lawmakers, struggling to understand why the Highway Patrol has a high turnover rate and low morale. Much of that fire is directed at Smith, appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley in 2012.
During the 2017 fiscal year, the turnover rate at Public Safety was 15 percent, slightly better than the 17.8 percent average for all state agencies.
Among those who left the agency in the past seven years — 74 percent — were Highway Patrol employees. The 2017 study said the Highway Patrol, on average, loses seven uniformed officers a month, or 84 a year, due to retirement or other reasons. Troopers who left the agency this year mostly cited “personal reasons” for quitting, the study said.
Currently, there are 756 troopers on the road and 39 in training, compared with 761 in 2012 and 2013. The Highway Patrol’s budget has money for 850 troopers.
Since the study’s publication in September, Smith said several changes within the agency have occurred, including the creation of an internal employee council and one-on-one ride-alongs with troopers by Smith to hear their concerns. “I take it very seriously. We take them very seriously, and we are really committed to this.”
State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester, didn’t appear swayed, saying she was “beyond words” that Whatley, a veteran trooper with a clean record, was leaving an agency that he loves.
“It’s our job and your job to make sure they’re the ones who get protected,” she said to Smith.
Whatley said he would consider coming back to Highway Patrol if Smith resigned. However, Whatley is not calling for Smith’s resignation.
“I’m calling for him to open his eyes and listen to us, and make changes in the agency and make them now.”
©2017 The State (Columbia, S.C.)