Ga. governor plans to boost officer pay

The plan would raise the median salary of state officers by about $8,000 and would require four additional hours of annual training

By Greg Bluestein and Aaron Gould Sheinin 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal proposed Thursday a 20 percent pay increase for state law enforcement officers and an overhaul of police training to include more courses on use of force and community policing after a summer of violence and unrest in the nation's streets.

The governor's plan would cost nearly $79 million to hike the median salary of the roughly 3,300 state law enforcement officers by an average of about $8,000. It would also require four additional hours of annual training for Georgia's 57,000 sworn officers and expand a program focusing on mental health crises.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, right, delivers his State of the State address on the House floor as House Speaker David Ralston, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle look on at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Atlanta.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, right, delivers his State of the State address on the House floor as House Speaker David Ralston, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle look on at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

"I am a firm believer that if we're going to fulfill our obligation of keeping our citizens safe, we have to pay those primarily charged with that responsibility for those efforts," Deal said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's a step to recognize and appreciate their sacrifices."

The hundreds of state law enforcement officers who surrounded the governor at a Capitol news conference Thursday shouted a collective cheer when Deal made the news of the proposed raise public.

The budget proposal would require legislative approval, but the governor and his aides are so confident of its passage that they plan to include the 20 percent raise in paychecks in January -- even before lawmakers can vote on the changes.

House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle were also on hand for Thursday's announcement, and both praised the governor and pledged to support his plan when lawmakers return in January.

Deal also wants to expand the state's Crisis Intervention Training program, which trains officers to handle crises involving people with mental illnesses. And he would create a task force to review police training regimens and recommend improvements.

No longer cellar-dwellers
The pay increases come on top of a 6 percent payroll increase that lawmakers approved earlier this year for law enforcement at state agencies, which includes Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and Department of Natural Resources rangers. It will instantly make the state's police force among the nation's better-paid state officers.

Deal said the shift will boost state trooper base pay from 50th in the nation to 24th, behind only Louisiana and Texas in the South. Median annual salaries for state officers would jump from about $38,685 to $46,422. Eight local law enforcement agencies now pay their entry-level officers more than the starting salary for a state trooper.

The governor said he's tired of watching some of the state's best-trained officers leave for higher pay at other agencies or for local police departments.

"We're doing it the right way. It's not just salary increases. It's making sure our officers are trained to confront these situations that not only put them in danger and put other citizens in danger as well," Deal said. "We want them to be the best prepared and as nearly as possible the best paid individuals that we can find."

The money won't just help keep current officers in the field. It will also make state law enforcement jobs more attractive at a time when the State Patrol is facing a shortage of troopers.

The AJC reported in May that the agency was budgeted for 953 positions but had only 789 employees. The paper found the shortage so acute that in two-thirds of the state there were not enough troopers to patrol 24 hours a day.

Following Deal's announcement, the Capitol was filled with officers who couldn't stop smiling.

State Trooper Jake Bullock, a four-year veteran of the force, said the raise should allow him to quit a second job he took to earn more money. Jason Shoudel, a 10-year veteran of the GBI, said the extra money will come at the perfect time: His wife is due to give birth to their first child in April.

The extra pay will allow his wife to stay at home with their baby longer and help pay for the expenses a new child brings.

"It's a very big deal," Shoudel said, a huge grin on his face.

While the pay raises will have no impact on the roughly 54,000 city and county police who get paid by their local governments, his proposal to change their continuous training regimen would touch virtually every sworn officer in the state.

His proposal would add four more hours to the 20 hours of training now required for officers to keep their arrest powers. Two of them will focus on use-of-force training and tactics to de-escalate hostile situations. Officers can pick among courses on fostering community relations and cultural competency in policing for the other two hours.

Deal said the increased training is not a reaction to the shooting deaths of black men that sparked a wave of nationwide protests or the assassinations of police officers in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas that followed them. But he said it reflected the new challenges police face on the streets.

"We want our law enforcement officers to be the best trained they can be -- because we know that similar situations will always confront them," Deal said.

Vernon Keenan, the longtime director of the GBI, said this kind of change is essential.

"Law enforcement is constantly dealing with new challenges," he said after the governor spoke Thursday. "Training constantly needs to be modernized."

The governor's plan would also beef up the number of officers who graduate from specialized training courses to handle mental illnesses.

The state's intervention program is now run by the GBI, which has trained 9,500 officers. Deal said transferring the program to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center would dramatically increase capacity, though he had no estimate on how much it would cost.

'A decisive step'
The governor hinted at the policing overhaul in July during a criminal justice panel discussion in Cleveland, where he said pay raises for officers coupled with additional training would help show officers "we do everything we can to protect them."

He has earned national attention for a criminal justice overhaul that pushes more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from costly prison beds, while giving judges more discretion to depart from mandatory sentences.

His proposal Thursday, though, is his most expansive aimed at policing practices. Parts of it can be achieved through executive action and regulatory changes, but lawmakers next year must approve the budget request and the mental health training expansion.

Asked how the state can start paying officers more in January before lawmakers consider the budget impacts, Deal smiled.

"I trust these guys to have my back," he said, referring to Cagle and Ralston, who were standing behind him.

The move comes as Deal faces a thornier relationship with the legislative branch than at any other time since his 2010 election.

Deal infuriated many conservatives with vetoes of "religious liberty" legislation that would extend legal protections to critics of same-sex marriage and a campus gun bill that would legalize firearms at public colleges across the state. And some lawmakers will be reluctant to embrace one of his top policy initiatives without concessions for their own priorities.

But legislators are unlikely to oppose higher pay for police officers particularly with leaders from both legislative chambers already behind it. The governor said he had little doubt his package will succeed.

"That has weighed on me for quite a while. The 6 percent last year is certainly a good step. But it didn't get us to where we need to be," Deal said in the interview. "This is a decisive step for our state, and it will distinguish us in the right way. And we will all be very proud when it becomes law."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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