by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
A quick survey of the salaries for police officers in rural southwest Georgia found that some officers started off earning $12.70 per hour, providing further insight into why so many local law enforcement agencies are struggling to recruit new personnel and keep experienced officers on staff.
In a fall meeting a panel of state lawmakers, police chiefs, sheriffs, and state law enforcement officials discussed the pressing challenges facing their profession as Georgia ranks near the bottom of the nation in average law enforcement pay. The House Study Committee on State and Local Law Enforcement Salaries report could become the lynchpin for new legislation once lawmakers return next Monday after the committee signed off on recommendations granting local officers access to a statewide retirement plan, providing income tax breaks, and encouraging city and county leaders to adopt a minimum salary of $56,000 to match the national average.
By comparison, the average salary for rural southwest Georgia is about $35,000 per year.
In addition to a salary bump from local departments, the study committee recommends the University System of Georgia Board of Regents should consider creating a law enforcement bachelor’s degree and streamlining the transfer of credits earned at police academies.
It is up to city and county officials to determine how much money officers and other public safety officials make working in local jurisdictions. But the state can provide incentives like it did in 2021 with one-time $1,000 bonuses to nearly 81,000 police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders and another bonus last year distributed from federal pandemic relief funds.
Committee Chairman Mike Cheokas, an Americus Republican, said that he’s hopeful the report will lead to more ideas about addressing salaries at the state and local levels.
“Our study committee wanted to look at issues and shine a line on what you guys face on a day to day basis and how we can create career opportunities for our young people and also have motivation to stay because it’s a grueling profession and dangerous profession” Cheokas said.
“We hoped that by getting this started, the ball rolling, shining some light on it, that the conversation will continue,” Cheokas said.
Brett Murray, who directs Southwest Georgia Technical College’s Law Enforcement Academy, said that the police force shortages are especially challenging for administrators in rural communities that lack the same resources as state agencies or in larger metropolitan areas that can often offer more money and better benefits.
Although state lawmakers can’t directly influence the salaries paid in places like Jackson and Americus, other methods exist to help recruit and retain officers, including bonuses, funding professional development, and allowing public safety employees to be covered by the same retirement benefits plan that would allow them to get hired by another agency without being penalized.
“There are places in south Georgia where the bean plant pays more than a police officer,” Murray said at a September committee meeting held in Americus.
“We need applicants in Lumpkin, Georgia in Webster County, Georgia,” Murray said. “We are losing the five-to-15 year officers fast. Those are the bread and butter, they’re the experienced officers who protect our communities and they’re next line of supervisors and managers.”
Deputies and officers who patrol the streets, work inside detention centers, and perform other duties are also in short supply in Georgia’s larger cities as violent crime rates have spiked. With 23% vacancies in Chatham County Police Department’s last year, some investigations slowed down, while Atlanta Police Department launched a campaign to hire 250 officers.
And as Cobb County Police Department struggles to fill about 100 jobs, it was among the suburban agencies that offered better wages and benefits rather than solely recruiting at job fairs and posting more ads.
Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat suggested at a committee meeting last month that Georgia consider emulating states like Florida where employees are able to earn interest on their monthly retirement benefits and have the option of receiving a lump sum payment or rolling over into another plan.
Adding local law enforcement employees to a statewide retirement plan would take two years and require an actuarial study before legislation could be passed. Other law enforcement-focused legislation could become law in the upcoming session after moving through the public safety committee and both chambers.
This story was written by Stanley Dunlap, a reporter for the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.
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