ATLANTA - While the Georgia State Patrol is tasked with keeping highways safe, its presence on roads drops significantly around the state in the late night and early morning hours.
For example, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., there are no state troopers patrolling Interstate 85 near Newnan. Nor are any troopers patrolling highways in the rest of Coweta County or in Fayette and Heard counties.
That's also true in Greene, Jasper, Putnam, Cherokee, Pickens, Clarke and 86 other counties.
And around 2 a.m., all of Georgia's troopers call it a night, leaving only radio operators in 21 out of 49 posts statewide. If there are traffic accidents on any of the state's 20,000 miles of highways or interstates, the radio operators notify troopers on call, who must get out of bed to respond.
In some cases, a single trooper is responsible for as many as six counties. And no trooper has fewer than two.
State officials admit the shortage of troopers on the road at night leaves highways vulnerable except in areas where local law enforcement agencies cover the gap.
"It's a manpower issue," State Patrol Col. Bill Hitchens said. "We would like for things to be otherwise but we have to deal what we have."
Hitchens said all phone calls for help are answered. And in the case of closed posts, calls are forwarded to a radio operator in a nearby county.
But A.J. Pavlisak, vice president of the Georgia Trooper Lodge 100 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the shortage of troopers on the road means dangerous drivers are not getting caught.
"If you don't have the work force out there to stop it, it just gets worse and worse and worse," Pavlisak said.
Sheriffs, especially those in rural areas, are also concerned.
Dougherty County Sheriff Jamil Saba, a member of the Public Safety Board that oversees the State Patrol, predicts the decline in troopers on duty will continue "if they don't do something right now."
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said he stopped depending on the patrol years ago because of what he called an unwieldy bureaucracy, even before the state began closing posts at night.
"We don't use the State Patrol for anything," Sills said. "Any police agency that closes needs to re-examine what they do."
Screven County Sheriff Mike Kile said traffic is sparse in his county, which borders South Carolina, between midnight and dawn. Even so, he keeps one of his six deputies on patrol.
"Personally I think all State Patrol posts should be staffed 24 hours," Kile said. "But they don't have the personnel to do it, and they don't have the money to do it."
The State Patrol has nearly 750 troopers but should have 200 more. Hitchens said the current "trooper school" could have accommodated 70 students but only 54 enrolled. Now, only 39 cadets remain and are scheduled to graduate in August.
Meanwhile, the agency averages 10 to 20 resignations a month, according to Hitchens. Relatively low pay, starting at $31,500 with no incremental increases, is one reason for the high turnover, he said.
Pavlisak said the manpower shortage has changed the nature of the State Patrol. "The patrol has become a reactionary force as opposed to a proactive force," he said.