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Gainesville, Hall law enforcement agencies struggle to fill ranks
Gainesville chief says state pay increase brought to light patrol shortages

Public safety officer salaries

Starting pay for certified deputies/officers

Georgia State Patrol: $46,422

Banks County Sheriff’s Office: $40,000

Gwinnett County Police: $38,777

Hall County Sheriff’s Office: $37,658

Gainesville Police: $35,543

It’s hard to say no to almost $10,000 more per year, and Hall County’s law enforcement leaders know it.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed the fiscal year 2018 budget May 1, which included $55.2 million to provide a 20 percent salary increase for state law enforcement.

Starting salary for a Georgia State Patrol trooper upon graduation is now $46,422, a $10,312 pay increase.

At the Gainesville Police Department, starting pay is $35,543; deputies with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office can expect $37,658.

Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said the department was already seeing a slowdown of certified applicants even before the pay increase was announced.

“I think it has brought to light the situation not only in the state of Georgia but nationwide — the shortage of police officers and the applicants,” she said. “It can be blamed on many factors: pay, benefits, the national spotlight and the economy. When the economy’s better, our applicants go down.”

Sheriff Gerald Couch said he has lost at least one employee to Georgia State Patrol recently, as he and other law enforcement leaders struggle with hiring and retention.

“The more seasoned officers — eight to 10 or 12 years — they get to that point and they go, ‘I need a better retirement.’ And they may go to another agency, whereas the newer officers will leave for a variety of reasons,” Couch said.

Gainesville Police has four vacancies in patrol, as well as four officers at the academy and another four in the field training program.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has eight patrol vacancies, one a civilian position.

“Patrol has been and always will be the backbone of the police department. No matter where you go, that is the backbone. If you don’t have the boots on the ground to answer the calls, you’re going to fail,” Martin said.

The Sheriff’s Office is also working to fill 10 new jailer positions created with fiscal year 2018’s budget. The result has been rampant overtime, as Couch said the department added another $100,000 to cover these expenses in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

With officers concerned about retirement and higher pay at other agencies, Couch acknowledged the possible effects on morale.

“It puts stress on them. I know it does, especially with the family life,” he said.

Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, the department’s spokesman, is an example of the swapping between the two local departments. Holbrook said he took a pay cut to join Gainesville Police, but did so to “take care of my family in the long run” with the department’s retirement plan.

“That meant more to me than those couple of cents,” he said.

Of the 133 applications the sheriff’s office received between March 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, only 62 were offered a job. The others either withdrew their application or failed the interview, physical assessment, polygraph or background tests.

Both Martin and Couch stressed their unwillingness to lower standards to fill positions.

“We have very dedicated professionals here, but I want to keep them here. I don’t want them to go across the street for 20 more cents or what have you,” Couch said.

Before the pay increase was announced, the 100th trooper school had 1,562 applications. When the pay increase was announced during the 101st trooper school application process, GSP Sgt. 1st Class Crystal Zion said the agency had 1,817 applicants.

The Gainesville State Patrol post employs 18 troopers responding to roughly 3,600 highway crashes per year, Zion said.

“They are unable to respond to approximately 100 crashes a month due to not having enough troopers to cover territory,” Zion wrote in an email.

Gainesville Police Deputy Chief Jay Parrish said losing an officer leads to a replacement time lasting six months or more.

“If we lose an officer today, the background and application process alone is over a month. When you look at their training time if they’re non-sworn, it’s probably six to nine months before they’re out there replacing that officer. If they are sworn, it’s at least three to four months,” he said.

To combat the vacancies on patrol, Parrish said the department has developed creative measures to ensure all shifts are covered. One example included changing some shifts to a 4 p.m.-4 a.m. schedule, starting at the busiest time of day and ending in the dead hours of the night

The Hall County Board of Commissioners was hit with a $75 million class-action lawsuit earlier this year regarding a benefits freeze. The policy decisions related to the freeze date back to the 1998 county commission.

Couch said he has been in talks with the commission on “improving our benefits and our retirement, especially in the public safety field.” One idea discussed was moving public safety employees to a separate pay scale and retirement benefits plan compared to other county employees.

“That’s where we’re basically bleeding or hemorrhaging employees are in those fields, and the training and education and all the equipment that goes into getting a deputy sheriff certified and up and running ... that’s a huge investment,” Couch said. “And that’s something that we need to protect.”

The lost investments are best seen in recruits sent to the police academy, where they sign a two-year contract with the agency paying for the training. If the recruit leaves for another agency, the agency is reimbursed on a prorated system based on the amount of time left on the contract.

“Being made monetarily whole from the lost training cost doesn’t really offset the fact that we’ve lost that time,” Parrish said.

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