Opinion Columns & Blogs

They deserved the pay raises they’ve been getting. But a slap on the back is due, too

Three years ago, Georgia leaders knew they had a problem. Seats in training classes for new State Patrol officers were going unfilled. Recruiting new members of the force was beyond difficult. Morale on the force was low.

A 6% pay raise after years of status quo salaries had done little to change the situation. Georgia’s pay scale for new officers was last in the nation. Gov. Nathan Deal, with the support of House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, announced an additional 20% pay raise for state law enforcement officers that went into effect even before the legislature was able to vote on it.

State law enforcement officials were pleased. County and municipal law enforcement officials were concerned. They pay scale of county versus state law enforcement had inverted, and they were on the losing end.

Prior to the state’s move on pay raises, many local agencies were able to successfully recruit officers from the ranks of the Georgia State Patrol. The state would recruit and train officers, and local agencies could then hire them away offering a higher salary.

Sheriffs and police chief can’t just unilaterally change the pay scales in their departments. They can only propose budgets, but the taxing authority that would fund pay increases rests with county commissioners and city councils. Running for re-election with a record of tax increases remains problematic in most of deep-red Georgia.

There were calls for the state to fund the raises for local government, but state legislators already have difficulty matching the wants of their constituents with the realities of incoming budget revenues. They’re not terribly excited about proposing tax increases so local government officials don’t have to, either.

Slowly, if not uniformly, it appears local governments are meeting the reality that higher wages are required to recruit and retain law enforcement personnel. My former hometown newspaper, The Fayette County News, reports that public safety employees will receive a 9.09% raise in the 2020 budget. My current home county of Cobb County continues to cite retention of public safety personnel as a reason why property taxes may be increased this year, a year after a “restoration” budget injected the county coffers with an extra 1.7 mils added to property tax rates.

For the local governments that are playing catch up, or for the state that has set the pace on public safety, there will be no laurels on which to rest. Recruiting and retaining personnel is likely to continue to be a challenge, and is likely to get even harder.

Police face an environment where attitudes toward their position often run from indifference to openly hostile. On the Fourth of July, six police officers were asked to leave a Tempe Arizona Starbucks because another patron said the officers’ presence made them uncomfortable.

Starbucks later posted an apology to the officers its website.

The risks of the profession go well beyond slights at commercial establishments. A Hall County Sheriff’s deputy was killed in the line of duty last Sunday evening.

We ask our public safety personnel to don uniforms and report to work in order to protect us, all the while knowing that each day of work may be their last. We’re becoming increasingly tolerant of those who disrespect the profession. Too many of our elected officials then want to point fingers at each other rather than fund market wages to attract and retain those we need every time we dial 911.

No one should join a public safety agency expecting it to be a thankless job. We owe those that put on any public safety uniform our thanks.

Thanks can be verbal when we see them in public. We also need to remind our elected officials at all levels of government that we expect them to compensate public safety personnel commensurate with the risk they take on our behalf every day.

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