Ga. police department struggles to retain officers
From 2008 to 2016, the Columbus Police Department had an average of 37 resignations a year
By Alva James-Johnson
COLUMBUS, Ga. — In 2017, 24 police officers resigned from the Columbus Police Department.
Of that number, at least 11 sought greener pastures at other law enforcement agencies, most of them in the Chattahoochee Valley.
One went to work for Columbus State University, two for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, one for the Muscogee County Marshal’s Office, one for Rutlege State Prison, one for the Waverly Hall Police Department, and one for the Pine Mountain Police Department.
In recent years, the CPD also has lost officers to affluent Atlanta suburbs and Jacksonville, Fla., according to city officials.
From 2008 to 2016, the CPD had an average of 37 resignations a year, according to information provided by the city. In 2015, there were 54 resignations, and in 2016 the number spiked to 61.
Though the numbers improved in 2017, retention remains difficult despite the CPD offering a higher starting salary, and in some cases better benefits, than police departments in other comparable communities, said Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. Comparable areas included in a city analysis are Jacksonville, Atlanta, Cobb County, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, as well as Montgomery and Mobile, Ala. The Columbus Consolidated Government is beginning to lose ground as other municipalities make pay adjustments to be more competitive, the mayor said.
The issue surfaced Tuesday at a Columbus Council consent/work session, where Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell presented pay reform proposals for general government and public safety employees, one of them addressing the CPD specifically.
During that discussion Councilor Glenn Davis raised concerns about the lack of officers out in the community.
“The number one conversation in this community is about the CPD; it’s about police officers on the street,” he said. “... Other cities like Savannah, LaGrange, they’ve bumped up their pay and we’re back behind the eight ball again. So, there’s this constant level of competition that we’re competing against, and that’s going to be one heck of a challenge to try to deal with.”
Davis said Gov. Nathan Deal increased the salaries of state public safety employees by 20 percent, which will make attracting officers even more difficult.
“... We’re asking CPD to do more out on the streets, to spend more time out there, whether it’s detectives, whether it’s patrol officers, whether it’s the special task forces that out there,” he said. “I don’t have to remind everybody about the headlines everyday and the crime in our community and the extent of it. Well, that just puts more pressure on limited resources and manpower that you have on the streets.”
The starting pay for an officer with a high school diploma or GED is $39,311, an associate’s degree is $40,216, a bachelor’s degree is $41,464 and a master’s degree is $42,713.
In 2017, the starting salary also included a $2,000 sign-on bonus, bringing the total to $41,311. That was more than the starting pay in Cobb County ($40,014), Atlanta ($34,726), Montgomery ($36,148); Jacksonville ($38,148), Augusta ($34,885), Macon ($31,969), Dekalb County ($38,151), Gwinnett County ($36,074) and Albany ($34,501), according to the city’s research.
Tomlinson said police officers leave for a variety of reason. Some just prefer working for police departments in areas that are less stressful and more affluent.
“Some of them are going to (places) that would be the equivalent to gated communities,” she said, using Brookhaven in Atlanta as an example. “... You’ve got these affluent communities with virtually no crime, they’ve got a couple of police officers and they’re paying what we pay.
“We’re a real city, ” she said. “But we’re a very dense city; at 200,000 people, we’ve got all the issues that dense cities have related to criminal activity.”
She said five years ago, two police officers went to a department where the headquarters were right across from a beach.
“Yes, we have to increase the pay, that’s why we have, I think for the third year in a row, pay reform coming up, particularly related to police pay,” she said. “But it’s because of what we are asking them to do. They are first responders in a very dense, very complex city.
“If you go to Atlanta and DeKalb, those counties have 14, 15, 16, 17 cities, and they split up into these little segments of communities, isolated lots of times by affluence,” she said. “And those people lots of times are setting up police departments. So now you have this demand for police officers, and they’re looking for quality of life and pay.”
Recruiting and retaining police officers is an ongoing challenge, she said.
“... Unless we’re going to de-consolidate and start segmenting our community, having a Upatoi Police and a Midland Police,” she said. “If we’re not going to do that, then we’re going to have to start paying more. That’s why we keep bringing back pay reform to compete with these other communities.”
©2018 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)