When a Tennessee man sped through all three tollbooths on the West Virginia Turnpike, he drove more than 75 miles before any state troopers were available to pursue him.
The delay demonstrates the severe shortage of troopers in West Virginia's State Police force. It is a shortfall that could get worse if 51 troopers who also are Army, Coast Guard and National Guard reserves are called for duty in a war against Iraq, State Police Superintendent Howard Hill said.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide may also feel the squeeze.
"The effects of a [reservist] call-up would be devastating," Hill said, noting that he could lose 9 percent of his uniformed forces.
"We're already affected in all areas," said Hill, himself a National Guard reservist. "Our lab is behind. The interstate system is basically bare [of troopers]. I hope we never go to war for a lot of reasons, but that's a big one."
On the West Virginia Turnpike, Charles R. Wyatt of Morristown, Tenn., sped through a tollbooth Jan. 5 and continued to drive for about an hour, zipping through two more tollbooths before a trooper gave pursuit, police said.
Senior Trooper Jay Powers said state police simply did not have the staff to respond until the driver reached Charleston.
The driver ultimately collided with another vehicle. When the trooper tried to arrest him, Wyatt resisted and was shot four times, police said. Wyatt was hospitalized in satisfactory condition last week.
Similar delays may become more common if the country goes to war. The nation's police forces have a disproportionate number of employees serving in the military reserves, law enforcement officials say, so they suffer disproportionate staffing shortages in times of national emergency.
No group appears to keep statistics on the number of people in law enforcement who are also reservists, but anecdotal evidence puts the figure between 3 percent and 5 percent, officials say.
"It's a significant staffing issue faced by law enforcement agencies across the country," said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents 220,000 officers.
Judith DeSantis is executive vice president with the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a group representing almost 20,000 federal employees. She is also an Army reservist who is preparing to serve if a war with Iraq breaks out.
In the past six years, DeSantis has twice been activated by the reserves, pulling her from her job with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Newark.
"Agencies can't hire against these positions, so it leaves a void," she said. "People end up doing double and triple duty to make up for your absence. It's a problem."
In West Virginia, the State Police has 679 approved positions for troopers -- but only 565 troopers on the payroll. And Hill said he anticipates 30 of his 51 reservists will be called at any one time.