Sheriff’s deputies: We face highest risk but lowest pay

County sheriffs and their deputies have one response to Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to raise state law enforcement pay 20 percent:

What about us?

Many deputies say they earn less money than their state counterparts and are equally, if not more, deserving of a bump in pay. At this time of stress and scrutiny in the post-Ferguson era of policing, sheriffs and deputies argue that they are the front-line first responders in much of the state. GBI agents, parole officers and game wardens often come in after the fact, the sheriffs say.

“They’re support agencies, fleas on the elephant,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, a former Georgia Sheriffs’ Association president. He said the state officers deserve a raise. But speaking of the deputies and city and county police, he said, “We police Georgia.”

Deputies such as Justin Brock say they’ve had to take one or two extra jobs providing security at high school games and banks to get by. The 13-year veteran in Putnam County, who makes $34,000 a year as a deputy, said he struggles to support a household that includes his disabled wife, three children and his mother.

“I’m just wishing they did more for the local side,” Brock said. “I wish they would even the playing field.”

Beyond that, the sheriffs and deputies, especially those lower-paying offices outside metro Atlanta, worry the state pay hike would compromise public safety in their areas by making it harder to recruit and retain deputies. They anticipate an exodus of experienced deputies, leaving “the streets patrolled by a bunch of kids learning to be cops,” as one sheriff put it.

Last week, Deal received widespread praise for his package of policing proposals, which includes the $79 million in pay raises. The increases, which require legislative approval, focus on about 3,300 state troopers, GBI agents, and corrections, pardons and parole and natural resources officers. They do not affect the tens of thousands of other officers in the state.

Concerns go beyond just sheriffs and deputies.

State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, supports Deal’s plan but said it would “add tremendous additional pressure” for county and city departments to recruit and retain officers.

“Perhaps it’s time to establish state pay minimums for law enforcement officers throughout the state, similar to what Florida currently does, so that our various law enforcement agencies can stop competing amongst themselves for personnel just because of pay,” Jones said.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association sent an email to every sheriff in the state urging them to consider the pay hike’s “negative impact on the safety of our citizens.”

The pay raise will establish “local officers as a subclass in our state,” association executive director Terry Norris said in the email. He urged the sheriffs to ask their state lawmakers “not to commit their support to the proposal until such time the low pay and poor benefits of deputy sheriffs” can be similarly addressed.

‘I want my kids to have a chance’

After 16 years at the Heard County Sheriffs Office, Cain Dean said his salary of $28,000 is hardly enough to support his family. He has three kids in this county about an hour’s drive southwest from Atlanta. His son depends on a HOPE scholarship to attend the University of West Georgia. His wife has a pickup truck that the couple share, and Dean works part-time jobs to pull in more cash.

“I want my kids to have a chance in this life,” said Dean, noting he has thought about leaving but says, “I grew up here. I love it here.”

Dean worries that the pay hike would rob the sheriff’s office of good personnel. “And when you don’t have good personnel, that’s when bad decisions start getting made,” he said.

Deal’s plan would raise state officers base pay from about $38,685 to $46,422. The average starting pay for sheriff’s deputies statewide is $29,900, according to the sheriffs’ association.

Dean’s boss, Heard County Sheriff Ross Henry, said four of his 12 deputies have left in about the past year, two of them to the State Patrol and GBI. Since Deal’s announcement, another three have said they’re in discussions with other agencies.

“I’ve talked to the local officials, and they’re doing what they can,” Henry said. “They’ll look at it again since the governor’s plan.”

Different reaction among police

The problem of low pay extends to many local police departments as well, but they’re not making the same public ruckus as the sheriffs and deputies.

“It’s just not appropriate,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. First off, he believes the raises for state law enforcement are deserved and overdue.

In addition, Rotondo does not believe the raises will prompt an exodus to state jobs. “The reality is that there are not that many state jobs available,” he said.

Of the sheriffs group, he said, “I think they’re crying wolf when there is no wolf.”

He noted, at the same time, that it’s trickier for police to publicly complain about salaries. Sheriffs are elected, so they don’t answer to their county commissioners. Police chiefs, on the other hand, serve at the pleasure of the officials who hire them.

“They would be criticizing the people who control their destinies,” Rotondo said.

The Georgia Fraternal Order of Police supports Deal’s plans, said President Randy Robertson. He said the sheriffs should use this as an opportunity to ask for pay parity from their county officials.

While state officers’ duties often differ from those of local officers, they face their share of danger, said Lance LoRusso, general counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police. State troopers make stops on the highways, natural resources officers confront armed and sometimes intoxicated people, and parole officers regularly confront people with criminal histories, he said.

When it comes to operating in a racially charged environment, he said, “They encounter people of all races every day.”

Burden for raises falls on local taxpayers

The governor’s office said Deal is doing what he can.

“Salaries for sheriffs departments are funded locally,” said Deal spokeswoman Jen Ryan. “Whether local governments choose to enhance the salaries of their hard-working and brave officers is a local prerogative and the governor respects that.”

Some sheriffs offices around the state perform different duties from others, depending on whether there are city or county police departments in their area. In metro Atlanta, several jurisdictions have all three, so 911 calls may not go to the sheriffs office.

But outside metro Atlanta, sheriff’s offices often are the only law enforcement agency around.

Should local city and county officials choose to significantly increase police and deputy pay, the burden would fall to taxpayers.

Those pay raises might mean higher property taxes.

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