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Montana Highway Patrol survey shows lack of trust in leadership

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Montana Highway Patrol survey shows lack of trust in leadership

Mar 29, 2024 | 5:23 pm ET
By Keila Szpaller
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Montana Highway Patrol survey shows lack of trust in leadership
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Provided by the Montana Highway Patrol social media feed on Facebook.

People who work for the Montana Highway Patrol under the Attorney General’s Office do not trust their leaders, and nearly half are not optimistic about leadership or the direction of the agency, according to a recent survey of employees.

Some 45% of survey respondents said they were not optimistic about leadership and the direction of the agency, according to the Organizational Climate Assessment report obtained by the Daily Montanan.

Level of Optimism

Rate your level of optimism for the current level of leadership and direction of the agency.

Not optimistic: 45.02%

Somewhat optimistic: 31.60%

Optimistic: 19.91%

Extremely optimistic: 3.46%

Survey participants also rated “leadership effectiveness” at 6.1 on a scale of one to 10, the report said. The report repeatedly mentions the importance of trust — and perils of a lack of trust for an organization.

“I have a difficult time trusting management above the unit supervisor,” said one comment in the report.

Said another: “They work for the optics.”

The report said 297 people were invited to complete the survey, and 237 filled it out (fully or partially) or opted out, for an 80% response rate. The survey was administered Jan. 29 to Feb. 13, 2024.

The report, which includes lengthy recommendations for new leadership strategies and cultural change, comes on the heels of a blistering legislative audit of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the fall. Among other problems, the FWP audit found more than half of the wardens feared retaliation, and personnel records were lacking.

A highway patrol employee who discussed the 2024 climate assessment with the Daily Montanan said the survey was conducted in response to low morale, high turnover and a need to make improvements at the agency.

“There’s definitely a lot of low morale, a lack of trust in leadership, the HR (human resources) department, the Attorney General’s Office, all the way,” said the employee. “Ultimately, we work for him (AG Austin Knudsen).”

The Daily Montanan is protecting the employee’s identity because the employee fears retaliation. The Daily Montanan also has requested copies of all reports and comments produced from the survey from the Department of Justice.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.

However, the employee said “various levels of leadership” received copies of survey results, but those supervisors were later told to return them. The employee also said participants who were promised reports from the survey have not seen them.

“The lack of information … about what is going on with this report is definitely not helping morale and trust,” the employee said.

A recent report from the Legislative Fiscal Division said the Montana Highway Patrol and Division of Criminal Investigation are experiencing the highest number of vacancies within the Department of Justice this fiscal year at roughly 61.3% altogether.

Montana Highway Patrol survey shows lack of trust in leadership
Screenshot from Legislative Fiscal Division report on Department of Justice.

The quarterly report counted 39 vacancies with the Montana Highway Patrol as of February 12, 2024, with most openings in patrol.

“Within the MHP vacancies, 22.09 FTE (full time equivalents) correspond to Highway Patrol positions and 10 FTE are positions in the dispatch center where recruitment and retention continue to be difficult,” said the spending report.

The employee who spoke with the Daily Montanan said the high vacancies have a direct effect on the public. For example, patrol response times to accidents increase, and officers have less time to go after drug dealers and pick up perpetrators with warrants for their arrest.

“It’s less opportunity for us to be doing proactive law enforcement, which is how we find people that have warrants or are human trafficking or engaging in criminal behavior,” the employee said.

The employee also said starting pay is a problem with the high cost of housing, especially in places such as Bozeman and Missoula, and also with higher wages from other law enforcement agencies. But the worker said money is just one part of the equation.

“If people feel like they are appreciated and they have good supervisors that care about them and stand up for them, they’ll stay at a job that will pay a little bit less,” the employee said.

The report recommends agency leaders communicate clearly and develop relationships to build trust and support employees. It said 75% of survey respondents believe the current promotional process is “not transparent,” and encouraged practices to “eliminate bias and subjectivity.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a question about whether it would implement the recommendations in the report. A Montana Highway Patrol public information officer also declined to answer the question.

MHP climate survey