Opinion Columns & Blogs

State’s police: Raise, praise

We’ve now clocked the 15th anniversary of September 11. As is typical — and well deserved — we couple this remembrance of when terrorists killed over 3,000 on American soil with a recognition of the first responders who ran toward the danger rather than away from it.

As a country, we have historically been pretty good at public acknowledgment and thanks of those who put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us. The reality of how we support them often differs substantially.

During the last year or so, the calculus has changed significantly. Protests of police officers have led to a very public questioning of the role between those who wear a badge to protect and those they serve. Some incidents have gone well beyond protest. Dallas and Baton Rouge have seen incidents where multiple officers were assassinated in an ambush-style attack.

Officer Tim Smith of the Eastman, Georgia, Police Department added a local face to the heightened risks faced in an environment of heightened tensions. He was ambushed and killed in the early morning hours of July 8 while responding to a call about a suspicious person.

Being a police officer has never been a career that one pursues for the money. Recruits know and understand they will start with long hours and low pay.

Over the past decade, however, the value proposition has become significantly worse. Coupled with the new public tension (and increased demands to escalate legal scrutiny of police actions), pay has been largely stagnant since the depths of the great recession.

Georgia’s State Patrol officers are at or near the lowest paid in the country. Turnover has long been a problem. In the past year, it has reached crisis level according to many Georgia insiders.

An anecdote floating around the Capitol last week was of a recent GSP training class that had room for roughly 100 recruits. About 30 were hired for the available slots. Midway through the class, nine officers were still there.

Last year’s budget attempted to begin to address the problem. After almost a decade with state law enforcement officers having received two 1% pay raises, most received a 6% raise. That didn’t move GSP officers from the bottom of the national pay scale. With the events of the summer, turnover has increased.

On Thursday Georgia’s leaders took the unusual step of acting mid-year, outside of a legislative session. Gov. Nathan Deal, flanked by House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, announced 20% pay raises for Georgia’s state law enforcement officers. Members of the State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Department of Corrections, Juvenile Justice, and Natural Resources will see fatter paychecks starting January 1.

The money will have to be appropriated officially during the next meeting of the General Assembly, but the raises will be paid prior to any votes. This will require an estimated $79 million combined from the mid-year 2017 and FY 2018 budget. This would move Georgia’s ranking on state police pay scales from 50th to 24th — up to the national average.

Asked about the possibility of any political or procedural hoops that may cause problems for ratification, one Capitol veteran deadpanned, “Any legislator that chooses to go to the well to speak against this will find himself very lonely up there.”

Attached to the new funding are additional training hours required annually for all of Georgia’s certified law enforcement personnel. Emphasis for the additional hours will be on “use of force” training as well as building positive community relations.

The implications of raises for the State Patrol will have local implications, if not directly. County commissions and city councils will have to examine their own pay scales to ensure they too are paying competitive salaries. Those that are not will either have to find revenue to fund raises, or risk losing their current personnel and/or recruits to the state.

Will a single, albeit large, pay raise fix what ails law enforcement as a career? Probably no more than four hours of additional training will fix all issues with community relations. That said, the raises and training are two tangible and substantive steps to address a very real problem. It’s a solution that our underappreciated members of the law enforcement community can take directly to the bank.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.