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OPINION: It’s time–a mandatory minimum salary for law enforcement

crane

“During 2016 there were 140 law enforcement officers who lost lives in the line of duty across the country.  Of those deaths,106 were men and women in local city/county police and deputy sheriffs, 19 were state officers, six were federal officers and the remaining nine were college, territory or transit system officers,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, former president and currently 2nd vice president, Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.
 
Despite leaving home and placing their lives potentially on the line every day, a POST-certified law enforcement officer in Georgia has no statewide mandatory minimum salary, as our school teachers and most state government employees do by job classification. Thanks though to the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly, all of Georgia’s State Patrol, GBI, crime lab, corrections officers and other state law enforcement officers recently received a raise of 20 percent. A starting Georgia State Patrol trooper, after completing basic training, will earn $46,422 per year.

 Contrast that with your local deputy sheriff or police officer, on the front lines of public safety, where there is no set minimum salary. Average starting pay for a deputy sheriff in Georgia is $29,900, and average starting jailer pay is $25,300. When it comes to law enforcement comparisons, our average pay is lower than that it Alabama, both Carolinas, Florida and Tennessee. Our current overall law enforcement average compensation is 36 percent below the national average. Even the much-touted $15 an hour minimum wage for fast food restaurant workers produces an annual minimum full-time salary of $31,200.

It is long past time to better support and thank our men and women in brown and blue, and though resources and tax dollars are not unlimited, here are some ways to increase their pay:

Mandate minimum salary—Minimum annual compensation should be set by statute. As with our branches of military service, there should be pay grade parity by office and seniority. With the recent raise for state law enforcement, it may take several years to close the gap, but in time an entry-level salary for a local police officer or deputy sheriff should match the starting pay of a state trooper, and a trained and certified county jailer should make as much as a Georgia state prison corrections officer.
 
An L-SPLOST for funding local law enforcement—There are E-SPLOST for local education, T-SPLOST for transportation funding and a variety of other projects such as parks, libraries and government buildings are funded by Special Purpose Local Option Sale Tax. Statewide penny, or fraction of same, can be framed as an L-SPLOST for voter approval, with all proceeds funding law enforcement salaries and/or benefits for local law enforcement personnel.
 
State income tax credit—A state income tax credit of $2,500 for jailers, corrections officers, juvenile detention officers and others earning less than $40,000 per year from their primary agency. 

Minimum salary for Georgia’s sheriffs—Sheriffs are constitutional officers and the chief law enforcement officer in each of Georgia’s 159 counties. Their salaries are set by statute and a funding formula based on population, but it has been many years since the last compensation adjustment and recent criminal justice reform did significantly increase the compensation of all Georgia judges on State Court, Superior Court, the Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court.

The budget for each sheriff’s office is determined by respective county commission. In metro and rural areas alike, Georgia sheriffs are hard-pressed to find new recruits to train and swear into office, as the costs of being a deputy, sheriff or wearing a badge just keep getting higher by the day.

 Of the 140 officers killed during 2016, 65 died as a result of gunfire. This is an increase of 69 percent over 2015. Just during November and December of 2016, nine officers were shot in Georgia, most not in major metro areas. Five of those died. 

Georgia ended 2016 ranking fourth in line of duty deaths. This isn’t one of those top 10 lists we want to be on. Law enforcement recruiting is at a critical stage. Finding and keeping good talent at existing wages becomes more difficult every day. Let’s change the metrics or watch those statistics head in a much scarier direction in no time.

Bill Crane also serves as a political analyst and commentator for Channel 2’s Action News, WSB-AM News/Talk 750 and now 95.5 FM, as well as a columnist for The Champion, Champion Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can reach him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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