Paying better, demanding more

A substantial pay increase for all public safety officers is long overdue. The raise for highway patrol and other state law enforcement officers proposed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is a start.

It shouldn’t need to be said, even aside from the increasingly violent confrontations of the last few years, that the duties of a professional peace officer are dangerous and getting more so.

“The thanks they receive has not kept pace,” Deal said last week in announcing his plan for a 20 percent pay hike for state troopers, game wardens, Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers and other state-level law enforcement personnel.

According to figures from the governor’s office, the raise would affect more than 3,300 state officers, effective with the new calendar year, and would cost about $79 million over the first year and a half. The measure is expected to pass both chambers of the General Assembly by comfortable margins.

Better pay is obviously a matter of retention and of competition for the best people in these tough jobs: “We’ve always got people leaving to go to federal law enforcement,” GBI Special Agent Blair Sansett of the Perry field office told the Macon Telegraph. “I think this’ll retain agents and create a better hiring pool for our agency.”

But it’s also a matter of public safety, in the most literal sense of that term. Trooper posts in Georgia, as has long been the case in Alabama, are often so understaffed that response time to traffic accidents is affected.

Better pay, significantly, isn’t the only part of Deal’s plan. The tensions — largely, though by no means exclusively, racial tensions — between police and members of the public are almost certainly, and quite rightly, behind an emphasis on better training as well.

“We have seen in cities across the country the need to foster and strengthen the ties of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Deal said at a Thursday ceremony at the Capitol announcing the plan.

Deal has recommended that all enforcement officers with arrest authority should have more continuing education opportunities in areas such as use of force and interaction with the public to prevent what should be routine encounters from escalating.

For many officers this would involve mental health training, the Telegraph reported, to help police spot signs of mental illness in people they encounter in the course of their duties, and respond accordingly.

The paltry salaries we pay the people who perform our hardest and most dangerous civilian duties are a chronic disgrace. A compensation level commensurate with what is demanded of them would demand a lot more from the rest of us than 20 percent, especially if we want to attract and retain the very best people suited for this incredibly hazardous and stressful work.

But again, it’s a step in the right direction. Preferably just the first one.