By DAVE WILLIAMS, Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA — Representatives from state and local law enforcement Thursday called on Georgia lawmakers to increase salaries and benefits to help them overcome difficulties recruiting and retaining officers and investigators.
“Ask yourself this question: What if there were no police officers?” Col. Chris Wright, Commissioner for the State Department of Public Safety, asked members of a Georgia House study committee in America. “When law enforcement stops, civilized society stops.”
Maj. Josh Lamb, Wright’s chief of staff, said the demonization of police officers and the defunding of local law enforcement agencies that took place across the country two years ago in street protests following the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer is hurting recruitment efforts .
Lamb also cited the bail reform movement and a push to end “qualified immunity,” which protects police from prosecution, as trends discouraging law enforcement officials.
“It’s very difficult to convince people to stay in this profession,” he said.
Wright said the $5,000 pay increases the General Assembly passed for state employees, including soldiers, did not increase the number of applicants, while the number of employees leaving the agency is increasing.
The state patrol lost 42 soldiers to retirement between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2022, while 180 suffered disability and 145 resigned or were terminated, he said. Those losses cost the state $43.1 million, he said.
Georgia ranks 32nd in the nation for soldier salaries, Wright said.
Joe Chesnut, the special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Americus branch, said Georgia ranks 28th out of 33 states surveyed by the GBI for starting salaries for investigators.
Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward said the state’s prison system is mid-table among surrounding states when it comes to correctional officer salaries. However, most of Georgia’s neighbors offer sign-on bonuses to new recruits, he said.
Ward said a significant drop in the system’s inmate population during the coronavirus pandemic — from 53,000 to 46,368 — has helped ease some of the hiring challenges.
But the hiring process for correctional officers is particularly rigorous considering they deal with large numbers of inmates with mental diagnoses, gang members and elderly inmates with health conditions who are serving long sentences, he said.
“Criminal justice reform has done a great job,” Ward said. “But at the back end we didn’t do much.”
Bret Murray, director of the Law Enforcement Academy at South Georgia Technical College in Americus, said the same trends are exhausting the ranks of local law enforcement.
Trainee police officers in local agencies in rural counties around Americus are paid as little as about $15 an hour in many cases, with a maximum of $20.60, Murray said.
Even officers moving up the seniority ladder don’t get much more because of the compression, he said.
“We’re losing the five- to 15-year-old officers,” he said. “They move to bigger agencies.”
Wright said lawmakers should not only increase law enforcement salaries, but replace the 401(K) plans that retirees currently receive with defined benefit plans.
He also suggested that the state implement wage parity among soldiers, GBI investigators and law enforcement officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to discourage employees from moving from one state agency to another.
“Our employees are our most valuable resource,” said Wright. “We need to invest in them.”