By Callie Hietala
Services provided to residents may be scaled back or discontinued as the number of law enforcement officers in Henry County dwindles.
Over the last year, Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said his office has lost 25 officers, including 16 within the past 10-weeks. The majority said they were leaving for better pay, including four who chose to sign on with neighboring agencies.
“We can’t compete with the private sector,” said Perry, “I know our wages will never be that high, but it is particularly bad when (officers) can go to other agencies nearby” and make more money.
Faced with the double-digit personnel losses, Perry asked the Henry County Board of Supervisors to increase starting pay to $42,000. He also requested a 10 percent pay hike, with a cap of $5,000, for those with more than two years of service. According to Perry’s request, the department’s lieutenant colonel, major and Perry are exempt from the raises.
The supervisors directed county staff and Perry to discuss the issue further and provide an update to the board at an upcoming meeting.
If he is unable to retain or attract new officers, some of the services currently provided and most visible to residents may be scaled back or cut entirely, Perry said.
He explained the office is mandated by law to provide some services. However, some that are currently provided are not mandatory.
For instance, the office is mandated to serve specific functions—operation of the jail and court and serving civil process papers – which are associated with the court and its functioning. But other services, like Animal Control, School Resource Officers (SROs), general investigations, drug investigations, and regular patrol, are not mandated.
“What I don’t want to see happen is the services the citizens see suffering . . . but we’re mandated to run those other functions,” Perry said, primarily referring to patrol work which has helped keep the residents free of problems that have plagued other jurisdictions.
For instance, the area is fortunate “that we don’t have the gang problems and other problems other jurisdictions have, and that is because we have good officers out there patrolling. They learn who the people are who are causing the problems. They’re very effective in working cases and I don’t want to see those services suffer,” Perry said. “We’re very fortunate in our area for the number of crimes we are able respond to.”
If forced to scale back, Perry said he would start with some of the more minor services, such as investigation of misdemeanor crimes, nonviolent offenses, and small property crimes – which would mean that residents may have to start issuing their own warrants by going to the magistrate themselves as opposed to having an officer perform an investigation, he said.
Because efforts are underway to scale up staffing in preparation for the new jail to open, Perry recently hired 19 new officers. They are all currently being trained in the academy, which brings the staffing total to 150 sworn positions. Before that, Perry said the number hovered between 130 to 140.
Many of those who recently left had been with the county for eight to 12 years and were already starting to assume leadership roles or being trained to take on future leadership.
Retaining veteran officers is important to the overall success of the office and in providing services to residents, he said.
“You want to retain your veteran officers because when you’re hiring new people, you want good people out in front of them to learn from,” Perry said. Additionally, “you want the people you train to stay with you” because you’ve already invested a lot of money in them upon initial hiring.
It’s also crucial, Perry said, to be able to retain the officers the county has paid to train. Officer training for the Corrections Academy is three months long, which means the department is paying three months’ salary (nearly $10,000) plus the cost of the academy before a new hire is even able to put in a day’s work. Similarly, Perry said, patrol school takes nearly six months to complete, which is an investment of around $20,000 in salary alone in a new officer.
Regardless, Perry said public safety comes first.
“I make a vow to keep people as safe as they can possibly be,” Perry said, emphasizing his office will continue to serve and will always respond to violent or otherwise dangerous situations.
“That will be our first priority, always,” he said, and added that this is a prime time for anyone who may be interested in pursuing a law enforcement career.
“We have good jobs, openings, and opportunity for future advancement,” he said.