Kemp announces $1,000 bonuses for law enforcement, firefighters, other first responders

Gov. Brian Kemp, shown with law enforcement officials standing behind him at a press conference Monday at the Capitol, announced that first responders in the state will receive $1,000 bonuses. The money will come from a COVID-19 relief package that Democrats in Congress approved in March. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Gov. Brian Kemp, shown with law enforcement officials standing behind him at a press conference Monday at the Capitol, announced that first responders in the state will receive $1,000 bonuses. The money will come from a COVID-19 relief package that Democrats in Congress approved in March. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that law enforcement, jail and prison guards, firefighters and other first responders across the state will soon receive $1,000 bonuses.

Up to $100 million in bonuses will come out of federal COVID-19 relief funds that Democrats in Congress approved in March. Because Kemp has the legal authority to dole out the federal relief funds, law enforcement won’t have to wait until the General Assembly meets next year to consider the expenditure.

The Republican governor made the announcement at the Capitol with state House Speaker David Ralston, Attorney General Chris Carr and local law enforcement officers and firefighters in attendance.

More than 80,000 police and sheriffs’ employees, EMTs, dispatchers, state troopers and guards, full-time firefighters and others will be eligible for the bonuses. Volunteer first responders — mostly firefighters — will be eligible for $300 stipends.

Kemp’s office said the money is aimed at offsetting some of the expenses the first responders may have incurred over the past year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our law enforcement officials and first responders answered the call of duty and bravely served on the front line of our fight against COVID-19, despite the unprecedented challenges thrown their way,” Kemp said. “We are taking yet another step in supporting our men and women in uniform and first responders by providing this well-deserved bonus.”

The bonuses come two months after Ralston proposed a $75 million crime-fighting package that included bonuses for local police and sheriff’s deputies and jailers. On Monday, Kemp expanded on Ralston’s idea. Agencies will have to apply for the bonuses for their employees between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31.

Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, who has a House committee looking at the rise in violent crime over the past year, said the bonuses were meant to show support for law enforcement.

“We know it’s never been harder to wear a badge,” Ralston said. “Georgia stands firm behind those who answered the call to serve.”

The state used federal COVID-19 money earlier this year to give $1,000 bonuses to teachers and most state employees, including state law enforcement and prison guards. Some officers also received pay raises this year in hopes of stemming high turnover rates.

The latest $1,000 bonuses won’t solve all the problems of low pay and benefits in some local law enforcement offices. Departments are having a particularly hard time filling vacancies in jails across the state, officials said.

Still, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat called it a “step in the right direction.”

“This makes a statement about how the state supports law enforcement,” Labat told reporters after the announcement. “What it will do is show appreciation, and sometimes what we want is just to say ‘thank you’ and for us to be able to have that conversation with our troops and say ‘thank you,’ that goes a long way.“

Democrats said the money for the bonuses is coming from a federal relief package Kemp opposed earlier this year.

“These bonuses are thanks exclusively to the president and Georgia Democrats, who passed the COVID-19 relief package without a single Georgia Republican vote,” said Rhyan Lake, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Republicans such as Kemp and Ralston, who face reelection next year, have jumped on the rise in homicides in many parts of the state to make fighting violent crime and supporting law enforcement a cornerstone of the GOP’s campaign strategy in 2022.

Kemp said in July that he would include crime-fighting legislation in his call for a special session this fall, citing a historically deadly 2020 crime rate in Atlanta, along with an uptick in violence in more rural areas.

Lawmakers were already scheduled to return for a special session to redraw congressional and legislative district boundaries to conform to the 2020 census.

But last week, Kemp set the session to begin Nov. 3 and didn’t include crime legislation in his call. Instead, his office said that he’ll ask lawmakers to debate a package of proposals during the General Assembly’s regularly scheduled annual session in January.

Atlanta had a historically deadly 2020, when authorities investigated 157 homicide cases — the most in more than two decades. This year, as of June, homicides had increased in Atlanta by more than 50% and shootings had increased by 40% compared with the same time period in 2020.

Many parts of the state have seen similar increases in gun violence, although Republican lawmakers have focused attention on Atlanta and criticized the city’s Democratic leadership.

During Monday’s press conference, Kemp and Ralston did not mention a proposal by Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate president, to create a new $250 million state tax credit, essentially allowing Georgians and corporations to target taxes they would normally pay into the state treasury to law enforcement.

Duncan made the proposal the day after Ralston called for law enforcement bonuses in July.