CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Law enforcement across South Carolina is fighting a battle to keep positions filled.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) is nearing critical staffing levels as the state continues to grow.

According to South Carolina Department of Public Safety Director Robert Woods, staffing is his number one priority.

“We are understaffed right now, and we have got to make that up,” said Woods.

The shortage impacts the type of service the agency can provide. For you, that means longer response times and fewer troopers running radar to keep speeders in check.

Currently, there are 816 troopers in the agency, 71 of them are still trainees. They are responsible for more than 41,000 miles of interstate and state roads. Woods says they need closer to 1,000 troopers to get back to previous staffing levels of more than a decade ago.

One thousand is a start, but still short of what Woods says it really should be.

“What I’m going to go on is what our current personnel allocation model says, and I was part of a study in the 2017, 2018 timeframe and what results from that is a number of 1,300,” said Woods.

He said the number one problem in filling open spots is the SCHP’s starting pay of $39,000 per year.

That starting salary puts the agency at a major disadvantage in recruiting when compared to neighboring states like North Carolina and Georgia. They start troopers at $46,000 and $47,000 respectively.

“Most people when they’re searching for a law enforcement job will put in a minimum of $40,000 a year,” said Woods. “We’re at $39K so just by virtue of being below that entry-level or minimum expected pay, we don’t even show up.”

Woods asked lawmakers for $6M to create a career path program to boost entry-level pay and add additional pay steps for the career of an average trooper. The hope is SCHP will be able to not only recruit more people but keep them through their careers in law enforcement.

Pay is a relatively easy fix compared to the other obvious challenge facing all of law enforcement. The anti-police sentiment is keeping some people out of the profession.

“I think that is a challenge, clearly that is,” Woods admitted. “It is a matter of pay primarily, but there is also a matter of perception and it is very challenging right now given the current climate.”

He added, that in his opinion, law enforcement is listening to the community like never before.

Recruiting plays a part, making sure that agencies look like the communities they serve. Woods says, if lawmakers give him what he’s asking for, it is reasonable to expect numbers nearing that 1,000 mark in the next five to six years.