Col. Chris Wright, commissioner, Georgia Department of Public Safety

ATLANTA – Representatives of state and local law enforcement agencies urged Georgia lawmakers Thursday to raise salaries and benefits to help them surmount the difficulties of recruiting and retaining officers and investigators.

“Ask yourself this question: What if there were no police officers?” Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, asked members of a Georgia House study committee meeting in Americus. “When law enforcement stops, civilized society stops.”

Maj. Josh Lamb, Wright’s chief of staff, said the demonizing of police officers and defunding of local police agencies that occurred across the nation amid street protests two years ago following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer is hurting recruitment efforts.

Lamb also cited the bail-reform movement and a push to end “qualified immunity” shielding police from prosecution as trends that are discouraging law enforcement officers.

“It’s very difficult to convince people to choose to remain in this profession,” he said.

Wright said the $5,000 pay raises the General Assembly has adopted for state employees including troopers haven’t increased the number of applicants, while the number of employees leaving the agency is on the rise.

The state patrol lost 42 troopers to retirement between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2022, while 180 took disability and 145 resigned or were terminated, he said. Those losses cost the state $43.1 million, he said.

Georgia ranks 32nd in the country in starting trooper salaries, Wright said.

Joe Chesnut, special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Americus field office, said Georgia is 28th among 33 states the GBI surveyed in starting pay for investigators.

Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward said the state’s prison system is in the middle of the pack among surrounding states when it comes to correctional officer salaries. However, most of Georgia’s neighbors are offering signing bonuses to new recruits, he said.

Ward said a significant drop in the system’s inmate population during the coronavirus pandemic – from 53,000 to 46,368 – has helped alleviate some of the hiring challenges.

But the hiring process for CO’s is especially rigorous considering they must deal with a huge number of inmates with mental health diagnoses, gang members and elderly inmates with health issues serving long sentences, he said.

“Criminal justice reform did a great job,” Ward said. “But we didn’t do a lot on the back end.”

Bret Murray, director of the law enforcement academy at South Georgia Technical College in Americus, said the same trends are depleting the ranks of local law enforcement agencies.

Starting police officers in the local agencies in the rural counties surrounding Americus are only being paid about $15 an hour in many cases and $20.60 at the most, Murray said.

Even officers moving up the seniority ladder aren’t getting much more due to compression, he said.

“We’re losing the five-to-15-year officers,” he said. “They’re moving on to bigger agencies.”

Wright said the legislature should not only increase law enforcement salaries but replace the 401(K) plans retirees currently are receiving with defined-benefit plans.

He also suggested the state establish parity in pay among troopers, GBI investigators and law enforcement officers with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to discourage employees from hopping from one state agency to another.

“Our employees are our most valuable resource,” Wright said. “We need to invest in them.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.