Proud to be on patrol

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Is it the “Smoky Bear” hat, the neatly tailored uniform accessorized with a sidearm, the sleek automobile, how the officer “walks the walk and talks the talk”-or just the feeling of security you feel when you’re stranded roadside and help arrives?

Whatever the reason, few jobs command respect as much as being a trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol. Trooper Jeff White, based in Cottonwood Falls, patrols a zone that includes Chase, Marion, Morris and McPherson counties.

Opening his Crown Victoria cruiser to a reporter recently, White talked about the duties, requirements, misconceptions and training that combine to make a KHP trooper.

* * *

“I just wanted to work with the most elite law enforcement agency in the state,” White said about his passion law enforcement and the KHP. “I wanted to be the best and work for the best.”

The son of a former deputy sheriff and city police officer, White has always had law enforcement in his blood.

He said young adults that share his interest can begin preparing to work for the KHP as early as high school.

“Take English classes so you know how to use proper punctuation and spelling in reports,” he said. “I’d also take classes that have to do with any form of criminology and math, because we use formulas to calculate accidents and reconstructions.”

White said the state has a cadet law program, in which students between their junior and senior high school years are allowed to attend the academy for a week.

“They’ll let you drive, shoot and basically do everything we do,” he said. “It’s a more controlled environment, but they see if the student likes the work or not.”

Until his acceptance into the KHP training academy in Salina in 2000, White had worked at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility as a prison guard.

“I had always wanted to be a trooper since I started working at Ellsworth in 1988,” White said. “My concern was that my eyes weren’t good enough to pass the physical, but they’ve since changed the rules for that.”

White said the process for acceptance into the academy is anything but simple.

“Prior to the 22-week training course in Salina, a background check is done on each applicant,” White said. “They’ll talk to your high school teachers, guidance counselors-anyone who can give them a good feeling of the type of individual you actually are.”

Obstacles that can derail an application are any citations for driving under the influence in the past five to 10 years, or other repetitious activities that set a low standard of conduct.

“If you have any felony convictions or a previous domestic violence conviction, you won’t be hired because it’s illegal to own or obtain a firearm,” he said.

Once the screening process is completed, which may take up to six months, the applicant begins the training course at the academy, which is located on the former Marymount College campus in Salina.

“It’s pretty closely related to military basic training,” White said. “You’re up at 5:30 a.m. for physical training in which you do situps, pushups, setups and run.

“By 6:30, you’re back to your room, where you’re expected to keep it clean, have your bed made and everything in order,” he said. “If your bed isn’t made right, you do it again.”

White said after breakfast at 7 a.m., intensive classroom training lasted from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.

“At 4, we were back in PT (physical training).”

Six p.m. to 10 p.m. is devoted to studying and cleaning; no one is allowed to leave the quarters for the first 13 weeks-they have no access to television.

“Shoes were to be shined, pants creased, and we marched everywhere,” he added. “The Patrol is so regimented because they want to know who really wants to do the job.”

White’s class began with 30 recruits, but only 22 graduated.

“The ones who didn’t make it just didn’t want to put in the amount of effort that’s required to become a trooper,” White said. “They’ll teach you what you need to know to do the job at the academy.”

* * *

Once graduated, each new trooper is assigned to ride with another trooper for 70 days.

“The first week, you just ride along and observe,” he said. “Then you slowly begin doing the stops, and the other trooper watches to make sure you’re doing things the right way.

“Once you’re sitting behind the wheel, you realize what a huge responsibility you have,” he added.

A trooper since 2001, White has developed a daily routine.

“The first thing we do is insert a new chip into the radar unit,” he said. “If the radar doesn’t pass the test of accuracy, we just don’t run radar that day and the unit is sent in to be fixed.

“Even if we’re not running radar, there are lots of other things to do,” he added. “We can still assist motorists, do truck checks-including log books, medical license, medical cards and equipment inspections-and just look for other things.”

* * *

White said each trooper is required to perform 50 truck inspections annually.

“I think that’s a good deal,” White said of the stops. “A big truck running 70 mph and weighing 80,000 pounds needs to be a safe vehicle.”

White said troopers are paid in two-week pay periods, each of 80 hours.

“We work a rotating shift where we work seven days and then have two off, and then we’ll come back and work eight days on and four off,” he said. “Each zone is run differently, but we’re still on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

White said someone, either KHP or county law enforcement, patrols the roads at all times.

Jurisdiction for KHP troopers doesn’t stop on the highway.

“We can stop people on state or county roads-or even on city streets,” he said. “I like the latitude and freedom the KHP allows.”

White said routine maintenance is performed on his car according to the book.

“I’ll put 1,500 miles on my car every 10 days, and I get the oil changed every 3,000 miles.

“The car each trooper drives is basically his car,” White said. “We’re responsible for any damage, too.”

White said the job is greeted occasionally by hostility.

“You wouldn’t think you’d get enemies in this line of work, but I’ve had my back window busted out with a beer bottle,” he said with a smile.

* * *

Troopers have no “normal” route to cruise. Instead, each one travels wherever his instincts take him. Of course, each route is interrupted by the call of duty.

On one occasion, White’s radar indicated a motorist traveling 78 mph in a 65 mph zone. Signaling, he quickly turned the cruiser around, and the pursuit began.

Once tucked behind the speeding motorist, White begins the procedure all troopers follow.

“First, there are no routine traffic stops,” he said. “Each one is different. We have the potential to be killed on each one.

“When I worked in Ellsworth, my wife knew the dangers,” he added. “But she supports me 100 percent. I’m sure she’ll tell you since I’ve become a trooper, I’m a whole lot easier to get along with, and I look forward to going to work each and every day.”

Once he is close enough, White radios the license tag number of the vehicle to Salina, where it is checked to ensure the tag matches the vehicle’s description and the vehicle isn’t stolen.

Once both cars are safely pulled over, Trooper White walks to the driver’s door, and asks to see the driver’s license and proof of insurance. He also informs the driver why he was stopped.

“I’d advise people to stay in their vehicles and keep both hands on the steering wheel,” White said if anyone should find themselves in this situation.

“One reason is for my safety, and the other is for theirs. People drive pretty fast along these highways and I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

White then runs a check on the driver’s license and proceeds with whatever enforcement he deems necessary.

White then returns the license, gives the appropriate citation and asks if there are any questions. If there are none, he wishes the driver well and tells them to drive safely.

“Not knowing what you’re walking into-whether there’s a felon driving that vehicle or what-is the most dangerous part of this job,” he said. “Also, we’ve had troopers run over because people don’t give us room along the road and slow down.”

White said in a normal week, he executes about 60 stops.

“We have no quota of tickets we must write,” White said. “We’re just expected to go out and do our job.”

* * *

One notion White and his fellow troopers would like to dispel is the idea their primary purpose is to write speeding tickets.

“We’re actually here to help anyone, no matter what troubles they have-even if it’s just taking someone to get gas,” he said. “There are a lot of things troopers do that the public has no idea we do.

White listed safety programs, safety education, vehicle inspections, public speaking events, and crowd control at large functions as just a few of their duties.

Another common misconception White and his fellow troopers run across is their negative image.

“People feel intimidated by us,” he said. “I just think we have a professional demeanor that’s sometimes taken wrong.

“One thing that bothers me is when parents tell their kids to ‘Watch out, or the trooper will get you.’ We want respect, but we don’t want kids scared of us.”

White said he and other troopers carry “Junior Trooper” stickers they distribute to kids.

“We’d rather have kids feel they can tell us things and talk to us than be scared of us,” he said.

* * *

As he cruised along the highway, White said this particular day was relatively slow.

“That’s good, though,” he said. “That just means there are lots of people out doing what they’re supposed to be doing and not endangering others

“When I write a ticket, I always ask myself, ‘Was this person endangering me or you?'” he added. “The ultimate goal of the highway patrol is to get voluntary compliance.”

Asked to name some of the most satisfying aspects of his job, White had a quick answer.

“Taking bad guys off the road is one thing,” he said. “If you take one convicted felon off the highway out of all these cars, that’s a pretty good feeling.

“Also, arresting drunk drivers,” he added. “It’s a good feeling to get them off the road before they hurt someone.”

White said his own family drives many of the roads he patrols, and he wants them-and all families-to be safe.

“Anything we can do to improve the safety of people makes our job all the more fulfilling.”

* * *

White said his job doesn’t have many drawbacks, but notifying next-of-kin of deaths “takes all the fun out of the job.”

“Telling someone at 2 in the morning that their son or daughter has been killed is a tough job,” he said. “Working fatality accidents isn’t any fun either.”

Speeding is the most frequently violated law that troopers enforce.

White said people can avoid seeing the flashing lights in their rear view mirror by following four basic habits.

“Pay attention, don’t drink and drive, wear your seat belt, and drive the speed limit,” he said. “People just don’t realize how unforgiving highways are.”

Statewide, the KHP has 500 troopers when fully staffed.

“It’s kind of a strange feeling knowing I’m one of only 500 people in the state that does this,” White said. “But the pride I have doing this job, knowing what I went through to get where I am today, and the people I work with, gives me so much satisfaction.”

White said while still in the academy, recruits were told they’d live in a different world once they’re troopers.

“They told us we’d be living in a glass house,” he said. “Even off duty, people watch what we do.

“We’re not above the law, and I would expect to get a ticket if I’m breaking the law.”

White said he’s heard lots of excuses for speeding. Some make a semblance of sense but most make no sense.

“Several people have told me they couldn’t be speeding because they had their cruise control set,” he said with a chuckle.

“One lady said she was late, on her way to see her sister. I told her to slow down, so she’d be sure not to wreck so she made it to her sister safely.”

As the day neared an end, White took his passenger back to the office. His afternoon’s work included nine stops with six resulting in tickets.

White said a career with the KHP makes sense, but only for those who are serious about law enforcement.

“You’ll have a great career,” he said. “You’ll get decent pay and good insurance. To be honest, if you want to be wealthy, you probably don’t want to do this, but it’s not just about the money.

“This is a great job. I’m actually living a dream of mine right now,” White said. “I don’t know if I’d give up this job even if I won the lottery.

“I like to think KHP troopers are the most professional and hold the most integrity,” he said. “It’s just an awesome feeling going to work as a trooper.”

Tom Stoppel and the Free Press thank to Lt. Bob Ware, Trooper Jeff White and the Kansas Highway Patrol for their cooperation on this article.

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