Alabama colleges paying more for police escorts

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Alabama’s college football teams are better protected than its highways at times.

As many as 17 state troopers are busy escorting 10 different football teams and their coaches on any given Saturday this fall, according to the Department of Public Safety. That’s about three times the number of troopers who typically patrol state highways at night.

Schools that request the escorts say they are needed, and paying for them wasn’t a big deal for the state when the practice began in the late 1950s at Auburn University and the University of Alabama.

But faced with tight budgets and more requests for trooper escorts than ever, the Department of Public Safety is clamping down to make sure campus athletic departments _ not the cash-strapped agency _ pay for the officers.

West Alabama athletic director Dee Outlaw said having a trooper accompany the football team costs as little as $450 a year excluding fuel because the officer is an alumnus and former player who doesn’t charge for his time.

North Alabama’s athletic director, Joel Erdmann, said a trooper escort costs his school between $3,000 and $5,000 annually in lodging, food, fuel and salary for the officer.

At Alabama, officials said they weren’t sure of the cost of the team’s two trooper escorts because their motel and food expenses are part of the squad’s overall travel budget _ a common practice at schools responding to inquiries from The Associated Press.

Making it even harder to determine the cost at Alabama, the state hasn’t asked to be reimbursed for troopers’ fuel costs from last season.

The state acknowledges it hasn’t been diligent enough about seeking reimbursement from schools, which all have agreements with the department to pay for the costs of trooper escorts.

But that is changing this year because of an 18 percent cut in state funding, which already was so low that a half-dozen or fewer troopers typically patrol state highways at night. The department has put mannequins in parked patrol cars to deter speeders while saving money.

Schools this season were notified that they needed to pay more of the expenses, said Maj. Cary Sutton, chief of the department’s services division.

Buddy Davidson, an assistant athletic director at Auburn, estimated that having two trooper escorts for the Tigers costs $2,300 annually in food and motel bills. Like at most schools, the officers accompany the team on road games and help with home games, too.

The troopers’ most visible job is accompanying Alabama coach Mike Shula and Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville on the field during games. But Davidson said the officers do a lot more than trot alongside coaches.

Auburn considers such help so important it hired private escorts for a game at the University of Southern California because the California Highway Patrol wouldn’t supply officers, said Davidson.

“We’ve got four buses and 300 people we’ve got to get to the game and the airport on time. You’d never make it without them,” he said.

West Alabama doesn’t fly for any of its road games, but Outlaw said the team still needs trooper escorts to get through small towns and back roads without any problems. “It’s worth every penny,” he said.

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