(The Center Square) — Law enforcement officers from across Georgia want state lawmakers to help increase wages for officers.
During a House Study Committee on State and Local Law Enforcement Salaries meeting in Americus, representatives from state and local agencies detailed the difficulties they have hiring and retaining officers.
“Our biggest challenge in law enforcement is finding people to join our profession and make a career of it,” said Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. “The national media has called the staffing shortage a crisis that requires immediate attention.
“It takes a very specific person to step forward and answer the call of duty knowing that one day they may have to pay that ultimate sacrifice,” Wright added. “Nationwide, we saw 43% more resignations and 24% more retirements in 2021 than in 2019.”
Law enforcement salaries vary across the state, and several sources, such as ZipRecruiter, peg the average in the mid $30,000 range, while others have it higher. Leaders in smaller departments say they can’t compete with the pay and benefits of departments in larger cities.
The Atlanta Police Department’s starting salary for an officer is $48,500, while the base pay for a Cobb County police officer is $46,000 and jumps to $48,436 after an 18-month working test period. Gwinnett County’s starting salary is $47,284 and increases to $52,861 after one year.
Conversely, in Valdosta, the basic police officer salary is $42,054.51, with an opportunity to receive up to $2,000 as an annual education incentive.
In 2021, Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 286, restricting a local government’s ability to reduce budgets for their police departments. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, subsequently signed the measure into law.
During the hearing, Mark Scott, chief of the Americus Police Department, advocated for several changes, including a state-funded mandatory statewide use of force database, which he said would dispel some of the anti-policing myths and a uniform statewide retirement system for local governments and state agencies.
With such a system, officers “would be encouraged to stay in the field,” Scott said. “Even if they change departments, at least they’ll be encouraged to stay in the field if they can stay in that retirement system and know, ‘even though I go to another agency, I’m not having to start over.'”
“We need your help to make law enforcement a competitive and attractive career for our young people,” Scott said. “…Our smaller, rural agencies cannot compete with the state, and we cannot compete with metro areas.”
State lawmakers cannot mandate how much local governments pay law enforcement officers. Scott suggested lawmakers consider a grant program to help increase officer pay.
“If we can set a minimum bar for professionals like schoolteachers, we ought to be able to set a minimum bar for compensation for our professional law enforcement officers,” Scott said. “…Nobody who wears a badge in the state of Georgia should have to be on public assistance to try to make ends meet, and we have full-time sworn police officers in the state of Georgia who are on public assistance because they can’t pay the bills.”
By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor