As fatal crashes surge and reports about dangerous and risky driving behavior are rising, the State Patrol has launched an aggressive hiring campaign to put more troopers on the roads.

Troopers retiring or leaving the job for other reasons in the past few years have resulted in a force of 584 statewide, and that's not enough, said Col. Matt Langer, head of the State Patrol. The ranks normally number well over 600, he said.

So the patrol is trying to hire 50 or 60 more troopers with funding recently approved by the Legislature. Starting pay is $62,400 annually.

"We need our troopers on the road more than ever," Langer said. "Our mission is traffic safety. We are looking for people who want to make a difference."

As of Wednesday, 329 people had died on Minnesota roads compared with 304 at the same time last year. There were 364 fatalities for all of 2019. There also has been a huge spike in the number of drivers caught going 100 mph or faster.

Both statistics are concerning, Langer said, especially since traffic levels are down since the coronavirus forced more commuters to stay at home. More troopers would help, he said.

"Visibility is key," Langer said "Nearly everybody changes behavior when seeing a squad car. It has a deterrent."

Langer hopes the patrol's social media blitz will attract recruits like Gina deCesare, who three years ago was managing two metro ice cream shops but decided in her early 40s that it was time for a career change. So she joined the State Patrol.

"I was already used to wearing a uniform," deCesare said. "I always had interest in being in law enforcement."

DeCesare, who patrols highways in southwestern Minnesota, said being a trooper is all about delivering roadside customer service.

"Every stop, I get to make an impression and I get to leave a positive impression on the road," she said. "It is not about issuing citations, but educating the public on traffic safety. I'm passionate about distracted driving. When I explain to them what the outcome could be, and I see the wheels turn, that brings satisfaction."

Langer said that recruiting troopers has become tougher in recent years, though that isn't unique to the State Patrol.

While the number of full-time sworn officers in law enforcement nationwide rose by 8% from 1997 to 2016, that growth has not kept pace with the growing U.S. population. The rate of officers per 1,000 citizens fell by 11% during that time frame, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and openings for police and detectives are projected to grow 5% over the next 10 years.

About 10 years ago, the State Patrol started its Law Enforcement Training Opportunity (LETO) program to diversify its force and recruit people who might not otherwise become troopers. The program opens the door to anyone with a two- or four-year degree in any discipline to go through training and take the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam, which is required to become a licensed peace officer in Minnesota. Candidates who pass the test then go through a 15- to 17-week training academy.

LETO has attracted bankers, teachers, military officers, musicians, unemployed college graduates and women such as deCesare, who was joined in the program by her husband, Joel, who also became a trooper.

DeCesare, who is one of 65 women troopers, said she was happy with her choice and knows she makes a difference on the roads.

"Everybody can help somebody else on the roadway," she said. "There is a need for excellent troopers. If you are looking for an opportunity to change behavior and change a life, if your values align with the values of the patrol — respect, integrity, honor, excellence — apply."