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Editorial: Paying police more can be done without raising taxes
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This opinion piece is developed by Times leadership, including General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor in Chief Shannon Casas, to address issues that matter to our local readers and foster healthy debate and discussion on those issues. All local readers are welcome to respond with letters to the editor of 500 words or less emailed to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. Please include your name and city of residence. The Times also has an advisory panel that meets monthly. Anyone interested in joining the panel can apply by emailing the following to letters@gainesvilletimes.com: 

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The Oakwood Police Department has a problem. It doesn’t have enough people. The county sheriff’s office is having to provide coverage for Oakwood at night. City officials are looking at pay raise options in hopes of recruiting new officers. Oakwood has a staff of 13; it needs a staff of 24.

Sadly, it’s not a problem that’s exclusive to Oakwood. Similar scenarios are playing out with law enforcement agencies across the country.

Following the social unrest of 2020 and on the heels of the “defund the police” movement, experienced law enforcement officers left their posts in record numbers. And they haven’t been replaced.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum, a research organization that studies issues critical to law enforcement, police agencies across the county saw a sharp uptick in the numbers of officers resigning or retiring from April 2020 to March 2021.

Comparing statistics from agencies large and small, the PERF found that there was an 18% increase in resignation rates during that time period, compared to the same period the previous year. More alarming, there was a 45% increase in the rate of retirements when comparing the two 12-month periods. In 2019-20, police agencies in the study reported 2.85 retirements per 100 officers; a year later, the number was 4.14 officers per 100.

There is a staffing shortage in law enforcement across the nation, one made worse by ongoing issues in the labor market that make it difficult to fill any sort of job in any industry.

The PERF study from last year found that agencies participating in the research were only able to fill about 93 percent of the positions they had budgeted, which was down close to 2 percent from the previous year. It didn’t matter that money was budgeted for the positions nobody could be hired to fill them. This was true with small departments with 50 or fewer employees, and larger departments with more than 500 sworn personnel.

Obviously, there are many factors involved in the national shortage of law enforcement officers, ranging from lack of public support to demands of the job. But it would be naive to think that money isn’t a major issue.

The agency responsible for certifying police officers in Georgia reported that in 2020, some 3,280 officers allowed their certification to expire, while the number of new officers being certified was the lowest in several years at 1,852.

The hourly mean wage for police and sheriff patrol officers in Georgia for the period ending May 2021, was $24.38 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is a mean annual wage of less than $51,000. But the numbers are somewhat skewed by large agencies with better pay scales; smaller agencies like Oakwood often pay less.

If you know someone in law enforcement, odds are they work a side job to make ends meet.

The current entry-level salary for the Oakwood department is about $35,000 a year, which would be less than $17/hr for someone working a 40-hour week, and considerably lower than other nearby police agencies.

Small law enforcement departments often find themselves as a training ground for officers who get their certification and a year or two of experience then move on to a better paying agency elsewhere. Add that to the mix of officers who leave law enforcement all together, and it’s easy to see why a manpower problem exists.

In the current labor market and employee shortages everywhere resulting in elevated pay scales, it’s not hard to find a $17/hour job that doesn’t require risking your life for the benefit of others. As a result, the Oakwood chief says they aren’t getting many applicants, and some of those who do apply are not the sort of folks you want to hire for a police department.

Oakwood city officials are scrambling for ways to improve pay, as are many governments all across the country. But increasing pay rates based on tax collections doesn’t always go over well with taxpayers, and elected officials tend to tread lightly in doing so, even when the need is obvious. Too often the most ardent supporters of “law and order” are also the most adamant to insist that taxes are too high and should not be increased.

One option we’d like to see discussed at the state level is the possibility of earmarking funds from certain fees and taxes for statewide support of law enforcement salaries, much as lottery funds are used for education, gas taxes are used for roads, hunting and fishing license fees are used for conservation, and tire recycling fees are used for the environment.

What would it look like if a flat fee were added to every car tag purchased to help fund traffic enforcement, or a percentage of alcohol taxes were diverted to pay for DUI patrols? Would a surcharge for every gun purchase going to fund law enforcement for schools help to quiet those adamant about stricter gun control?

It’s hard to say without deep research into the numbers but having an earmarked source of state funding to create a pool of money for law enforcement might take some of the pressure off local officials who sometimes are reluctant to pay what the job deserves.

Unlike the chants during civil unrest just a couple of years ago, we would argue that now is the time to “fund the police” at a level appropriately reflective of the job they are asked to perform. If we don’t, we will find the resources of law enforcement stretched thinner and thinner, at a time when they are needed more and more.

That “blue line” of law enforcement is sometimes the only line between lawless anarchy and civilized living. We have to invest to keep it there.