Pay raises long overdue for police, deputies

Despite some heated words and push back from City Manager Barbara Jones and Human Resources Director Becky McCann, it appears Mount Airy’s commissioners are moving toward setting a minimum salary for police officers in the neighborhood of $34,000 to $35,000.

That would represent a roughly 20 percent hike over the present starting salary of $29,000, and was one of the board’s directives from a two-day city planning retreat held Thursday and Friday.

This comes about two weeks after Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson asked the county commissioners for a 20-percent hike for his deputies.

In his office, detention officers work with a beginning rate of $26,400 and first-year road deputies make $28,584 annually.

Both agencies have cited continued high vacancy rates and significantly higher pay rates in similar police agencies around the state as justification for their requests.

Our only issue with Atkinson’s request is that it did not go far enough.

We believe no law enforcement officer in Mount Airy or Surry County should be paid less than $35,000 a year. And we believe whatever percentage hike that equates to, every pay step within both departments should be similarly increased.

We understand when a spending increase of this magnitude is instituted, other major cuts have to be made or ultimately revenue — taxes — have to be raised. And we don’t take such measures lightly.

But the pay rate of our community’s law enforcement officers, particularly those at the bottom of the scale, is shameful.

While fire and other EMS officials might be close, there is no job that carries the daily risk and long-term health issues of being an officer.

Every time an officer or deputy pulls over a car for a broken tail light or a speeding infraction, the encounter has the potential to turn into a deadly confrontation. Every call made answering a domestic dispute sees an officer going into a volatile situation where people on both sides of the issue might turn on him. Every time an officer is manning a checkpoint, he or she has no idea when the next person will pull a gun, try to run them over, or take other action to do harm to the officer.

Three nights ago, a Carroll County, Virginia deputy was racing to help two colleagues chasing a wanted criminal when his car crashed into another vehicle, killing the deputy the scene of the wreck.

Without attempting to sound melodramatic, death is an ever-present potential outcome in virtually every action an officer takes.

Beyond the immediate risks, this sort of job takes a long-term health toll. Multiple studies have shown even for routine traffic stops, where nothing bad happens, an officer’s adrenaline starts pumping, his or her blood pressure often goes up, the heart rate increases — all part of the body’s way of preparing for the possibility of a lethal confrontation. This sort of physical stress most definitely takes a toll over the years. This is one of the reasons many localities around the nation allow officers to take full retirement at a younger age than other public employees.

But, put all of that aside. Just think about the people on the other end of every encounter with an officer.

Every person stopped by an officer, pulled over by a deputy, is in many ways at that officer’s mercy. If the officer thinks a subject is resisting, if the deputy believes the person is reaching for a weapon, there could be fatal consequences for the private citizen. Wouldn’t everyone want to be interacting with the best, most level-headed officer in a situation like that? Someone who isn’t worn out or sleepy from working extra hours to fill in the gaps from his paycheck?

For everyone involved, raising local law enforcement payrates should be a top priority for both Mount Airy and Surry County officials this year.

We understand the local governments can’t get into a bidding war with other localities, someone will always throw out an outrageously high figure. But making $35,000 vs. $29,000 is a huge difference in this market. It’s slightly more than an extra $100 a week. That could be the difference between living paycheck to paycheck and having some financial breathing room; the difference between having a second job in an officer’s off-hours and being fit and rested for each law enforcement shift; the difference from being distracted on the job by money woes and being fully focused on the work at hand.

Paying law enforcement a good, solid, livable wage seems like such a no-brainer, it’s hard to understand any arguments against it.

Despite any opposition that does arise, we hope the city commissioners will stick to their guns, and the county commissioners will join them, ensuring that officers and deputies here start no lower than $35,000 a year for their dangerous, yet vital work.

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