A decade has passed since the national recession began eroding government revenues, but local and state jurisdictions still feel the impact. One of those affected areas — whose cause is almost hidden but whose effect is glaringly evident — is money that was designated for training law enforcement was swept into the state general fund, resulting in a shortage of qualified officers to fill those many statewide vacancies.

With the economic recovery filling tax coffers and the state having taken real steps on school funding, the next session in Olympia would mark a good time for the Legislature to restore money that has been taken from the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Burien — and take a giant step toward enhancing public safety.

A May 3 story in the Yakima Herald-Republic detailed how the lack of graduates from the academy puts local agencies in a bind. The Yakima Police Department has hired six officers who have yet to go through required training due to a lack of openings at the academy.

Hiring them early without training keeps them in the city’s fold — many jurisdictions are seeking officers right now — but it limits what they can do. Instead of patrolling the streets, the officers spend time with agencies such as Comprehensive Mental Health and Child Protective Services, work at the county jail or respond to nonemergency calls. The city estimates that by the time the recruits get through the academy and on duty, each officer will have been paid more than $75,000.

There used to be a dedicated money source for officer training, a $10 fee on traffic tickets. But with the recession starting to hit hard in 2009, the Legislature voted to sweep that money into the general fund. That helped balance the overall budget at the expense of funding police training, and as a result the state is enabling a violation of its own law, which requires new officers to start training within six months of their hire date.

The state has recognized the problem and responded, at least to a degree. It has bumped up the number of training classes over the past three years, but it is still shy of the current demand, and future needs will require even more steps. The Office of the State Actuary estimates nearly 1 in 4 police officers enrolled in a state retirement plan are eligible for retirement.

With years-long struggle over education funding largely out of the way — at least, we hope — this critical issue of public safety warrants legislative attention when lawmakers reconvene next year. The previous designation of traffic ticket money toward officer training was an implicit promise to the public; restoring the purpose of that fee would be a major step toward protecting the public, which is one of government’s core duties.

 

* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.