By Greg Markley

It would be nice if the word “defund” were as simple as when defined in a dictionary: “…to prevent from continuing to receive funds.” When used in politics, it signals a fight is on to crush a government agency or department; or to save it.

After the murder of George Floyd by a policeman, citizens all over the U.S. seek justice. They also want to “defund” the errant Minneapolis police department.

Exactly what form “defunding” may take for police departments is sketchy. Shutting down a first responder element such as the police, a fire department or hospital is different than closing a playground, library or gym. Yet all this talk about defunding and reconfiguring police departments reminds of one organization people claim to dislike but in their hearts realize is a life-saver.

I refer to the Alabama State Highway Patrol, home of state troopers who have been keeping people safe since 1936. When I moved to Lee County in 1996, I often covered political events with a popular radio personality who worked next door to the Lee County Courthouse. As journalists, we joked around yet did consider ourselves competitive at times.

On one occasion, I talked to a woman with whom we got along well sometimes, and other times we were not so friendly. I told her the radio guy and myself had “a love-hate relationship.” Not to be outdone, the broadcaster said: “No, Greg, it’s a hate-hate relationship.” This is the way many people feel about the Highway Patrol. When they receive a speeding ticket, you see them being very upset sometimes at the USA Town Center in Opelika. But when you are in duress, an Alabama State Trooper appears and takes charge.

In the 84 years of the highway patrol, 29 officers have died on duty. The Alabama Highway Patrol had 1,268 employees as of 2018. This accounts for approximately 65% of arresting officers. Troopers patrol nearly 70,000 miles of rural roadways in Alabama; they conduct motor vehicle law enforcement, rural traffic crash investigation and special duty performance in emergencies. (In the United States, 807,000 men and women served as state troopers, in 2016.)

It is clear “defunding” should not be considered as regards the very important state trooper force. For example, historically Alabama has had fewer troopers than Mississippi, which has only 40 to 45% of our state’s population. Our Gulf Coast attracts a wide range of visitors, both as tourists and as new residents.

In 1989, I was traveling in central or east Florida and I came across a couple, perhaps in their mid-70s, sitting in the grass amid the sweltering heat. They had car trouble and needed a ride; cell phones were unheard of. They left a sign on the car door for police that they would be back soon after getting help.

In Florida, given its older demographic, that happens occasionally. Even with cell phones, people forget to charge them or have lost them. This couple had been there for 90 minutes, with no one offering help but a 33-year-old soldier returning from Panama City (not the one in Florida!).

Situations such as the above are why Florida has a good complement of state troopers and may still have “free call” phone booths at rest areas and key spots on highways. State troopers sometimes assist local lawmen and women by patrolling assigned neighborhoods, responding

to emergency and non-emergency calls and monitoring traffic on state-owned highways and federal interstates.

A story on “A Day in the Life of a Cop” tells job seekers who want to be state troopers that “This can be a physically challenging career, and it’s often stressful and dangerous.” Writer Timothy Roufa adds that “Not every civilian is overjoyed when a trooper turns up at a scene. Expect to be yelled at, spit on, hit and even worse.” That could be a description of most law enforcement careers, even without the prospect of your job being “defunded” out.

The Justice in Policing Bill currently in the U.S. House would prohibit profiling based on discrimination of any kind, outlaw “chokeholds” and no-knock warrants and mandate dashboard cameras for all police vehicles. This legislation would also establish a national police misconduct registry, and make it easier to prosecute officers and sue individual officers.

Greg Markley haslived in Lee County for 19 of the last 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.