There's been a rise in crime lately, but a shortage of Columbus police officers, some leaving for better pay in other cities. So far this year, the Columbus police department has hired 52 officers, but it's not gaining much ground. There are still ten vacancies, according to the police chief.
The pay gap, compared to other police departments, and the shortage of officers has Columbus mayor Jim Wetherington concerned about public safety.
"You've got to have police presence and we don't have it. We don't have that. And the response time is going up," Wetherington said.
Mayor Wetherington, a former Columbus police chief for 14 years, says he will do something sooner, rather than later, about police pay, knowing that's why some of the 40 officers left the force this year.
He said, "You have to pay at a competitive level and we've been under that so long. We have a long way to catch up."
In comparison, starting pay for a patrol officer in LaGrange, with a high school diploma, is more than $33,384 per year. In Columbus, that starting salary is $30,152. And t's about $3,000 less than Columbus for a new patrol officer in Phenix City.
"It's not good to look at it as a competition, but in reality, that's what it is, a competition," LaGrange police captain Mike Pheil said. "The available candidate pool is reduced. Folks don't have the desire like they used to, to go into the public service arena."
"If the grass is greener somewhere else, they're going to go to it. I want to get to where we don't have so much turnover," Mayor Wetherington added.
The Lagrange police department has all but one of its 83 positions filled. City council there recently added several incentives, including a $2,000 annual pay increase if the police department stays accredited, plus an expanded take-home policy for patrol cars.
"If they live in any county that borders Troup County, they can take that vehicle home," said Captain Pheil, who also tells us, Muscogee County is included for some officers.
LaGrange wants to keep officers from leaving. It's the same goal in Columbus, where the mayor knows higher pay will attract the best candidates to protect and serve.
Some of the recent losses of Columbus police officers are due to officers not passing the academy and retirements. Some are also out on medical leave or deployed with the military.
Columbus' police chief says even more people are expected to leave soon, with retirements normally high in October.
As for that starting pay for patrol officers, it goes up nearly $2,000 with a college degree, in places like Columbus and LaGrange.
-by Jason Dennis