New uniforms in the works for Washington State Patrol

Trooper Schearer shows off one of the new uniform’s features: a velcro front pocket.
Trooper Schearer shows off one of the new uniform’s features: a velcro front pocket. Staff photographer

The Washington State Patrol’s blue wool uniforms stand out for their signature hats and bow ties.

It’s a unique look the patrol is proud of and troopers want to keep, department spokesman Kyle Moore said. But one that also comes with some unwanted side effects, trooper Travis Shearer said.

The uniforms can be heavy, hot and difficult to assemble. They’re dry-clean only. And when they get wet — a frequent occurrence in Western Washington weather: “You would stink like a wet dog,” Shearer said.

Shearer is the first trooper to test new machine-washable uniforms made of mostly polyester. The patrol expects to roll out the new uniforms to about 670 of its estimated 1,100 troopers next year as part of an ongoing effort to improve spirits at the department.

It will be the first major update to the uniforms since the 1960s, Shearer said, and another step in addressing the high number of troopers leaving the patrol for retirement and higher-paying local police departments. Troopers had been asking for new uniforms for a while, Moore said.

A report last year found patrol troopers to be underpaid and unhappy with aspects of the job, including wearing the old uniforms. Patrol Chief John Batiste told a Senate panel earlier in 2016 the department had been losing about nine troopers a month in 2015.

So far, the patrol is in the process of deciding between two similar new uniforms made by competing manufacturers, Moore said. A group of troopers across the state is expected to try out the new outfits in late July before the department chooses one.

Along with more breathable, sweat-wicking fabric, the uniforms are expected to have a detachable bulletproof vest designed to look like the shirt’s front, letting troopers take the vest off easily when doing in-office work. Past vests went under an officer’s shirt and were a pain to remove, Shearer said.

Patrol pants will now have cargo pockets for extra storage aside from already weighty utility belts. And troopers can have suspenders that help distribute the weight of their gun belt, too.

But the general look of the uniforms will remain unchanged. Bow ties included.

We like the fact that our french blue uniforms, the bow ties and the campaign hats are part of our traditions

Kyle Moore, State Patrol Spokesman

“We like the fact that our French blue uniforms, the bow ties and the campaign hats are part of our traditions,” Moore said. “It makes us distinct from other law enforcement agencies.”

As a bonus, the new machine-washable uniforms could save troopers thousands of dollars on dry-cleaning bills, too, Moore said. Troopers pay to dry-clean wool uniforms themselves.

New uniforms aren’t the only response to the steady stream of personnel leaving patrol.

The Legislature raised patrol salaries this year, approving a bill later signed by Gov. Jay Inslee that gave all troopers a 5.8 percent pay boost that took effect Friday. Troopers and sergeants also got a previously negotiated 3 percent pay increase Friday. And lieutenants and captains received a 5 percent bump along with the raise from the Legislature.

A first-year trooper makes around $59,500 in Pierce County and around $57,700 in Thurston County.

Salaries at the patrol could rise again soon, as the Legislature has required trooper and sergeant pay to be competitive with six large police forces in the state — including the Tacoma Police Department and the Seattle Police Department — by next July.

A first-year officer at the Tacoma Police Department currently makes about $62,795, said department spokeswoman Loretta Cool.

A first-year Seattle police officer now makes about $71,700, the department’s website says.

At the Olympia Police Department, officers must complete a discretionary probation period that lasts at least 16 weeks while getting paid $69,804 a year. They then make about $74,600 in the first year after the probation time, police spokeswoman Laura Wohl said.

Troopers are paying attention to the legislative action, Moore said, adding the patrol is losing only about five troopers per month this year.

State Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat, said he expects the Legislature to approve another salary increase next session so lawmakers don’t “find ourselves in another hole in having enough troopers to cover the roads,” he said. Fey sponsored last year’s bill that raised pay at the patrol.

The department also is making other changes aimed at improving the job and making it more attractive. The changes include cellphones that make it easier to make calls than the old radio system.

Shearer, a recruiter working in Northwest Washington, said improving smaller aspects of patrol work — such as uniforms — will boost morale.

The patrol is expected to spend about $1.7 million of its existing budget on the uniforms, Moore said. There’s no time line for when new uniforms will be issued to the remaining troopers.

Veterans at the patrol, tired of the inconvenient old getup, constantly ask Shearer about the new uniforms. He said he has a hard time wearing the wool outfits after debuting the polyester rigs.

Even new recruits are “super excited for this new setup,” he said. “And they’ve never even worn the old setup.”

Walker Orenstein, 360-786-1826