Merrell asks for higher officer pay

Published 2:24 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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District Attorney Walt Merrell said in a statement today that he has sent letters to “every council member, mayor, and commissioner in the county” this week, explaining that officer recruitment and retention is at a near-crisis stage.

“The Andalusia Police Department has been down as many as nine officers in the past year; Opp has been down as many as four; and though the sheriff’s office is currently at full staff, they, too, have struggled with retention and recruitment,” Merrell said.

He also noted that smaller departments like Florala are experiencing constant turnover as well.

“The problem is complex,” Merrell said. “First, there are some in society who have demonized the profession. Thus, interest is at an all-time low. Some departments across the nation have seen as much as a 70 percent decrease in applications.”

Merrell also noted that criminals are more dangerous. “Nationwide, violent crime is up by double digit percentages. Across the board, it is more dangerous now than ever to be a police officer.”

Lastly, Merrell said local pay is not competitive enough to “retain the good officers that we develop. Coffee, Walton, Okaloosa, Escambia, and others all pay several dollars more an hour than our officers make. We train up good officers, and they leave for higher pay — and who can blame them?”

Merrell said he was aware that Andalusia recently addressed a portion of their pay scale for officers.

“I do know that Andalusia has taken steps to make their pay more competitive, and I appreciate Sheriff Turman always being willing to go to bat for his men and battle with the County Commission for higher wages. The commission pays the lowest wage of any of the three major departments in the county. The fact of the matter is, the commission and those other municipalities must still do more. We lose officers to other agencies fairly regularly. Add to that the fact that the state recruits our best officers away to much higher paying jobs with much better benefits, and the reality is that we simply train our best officers for somebody else’s benefit.”

“Some might say I shouldn’t meddle in local government’s business. But I respectfully submit that this is a public safety issue, and that is my business. I’m not going to sit idly by and watch local police departments struggle to hire and retain officers in the name of politicians ‘saving a buck.’ People’s safety hangs in the balance.”

According to the district attorney’s office, locally, the Andalusia Police Department starts officers out at $32,510.40 annually ($15.63 an hour) with Tier 1 retirement, paid single-coverage insurance, and a $25,000 life insurance policy.

The Opp Police Department starts their officers at a starting pay of $14.50 per hour for uncertified officers, $15 after academy graduation, and $15.50 after probationary period ends. That equates to $32,240.00 for a starting annual salary.

The Covington County Sheriff’s Office pay scale for new deputies is set by the County Commission. They pay new deputies $12.90 per hour plus $1 per hour COVID pay, ($28,912.00 annually, including COVID pay) and that is an increase from 2018 rate of $11.64 per hour. Merrell noted, though, that COVID pay is temporary and is only based on federal COVID money that was passed down to the county. “At some point, that goes away, too, and then they will be back down around $24,211 annually.”

Merrell also compared the pay of the three largest county agencies to agencies outside of the county.

His office provided these figures that were collected from surrounding agencies: Enterprise Police Department, $40,246 annual/$19.35 per hour; Brewton Police Department, $41,579.20/$19.99 per hour; Escambia County, Alabama Sheriff’s Office, $39,062.40 annually/$18.78 per hour; Escambia County, Florida Sheriff’s Office, $45,801 annually/$22.02 per hour; Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, $43,804 annually/$21.06 per hour; Walton County Sheriff’s Office, $41,000 annually/$19.71 per hour; and Coffee County Sheriff’s Office, $35,443.20 annually/$17.04 per hour.

Merrell also specifically addressed political claims regarding retention.

“I checked with the County Commission because I was curious. In his last two years in office, Sheriff Meeks had a turnover rate of 53 people. Similarly, in a two-year period of his term, Sheriff Turman has had a turnover rate of 65 people. Some people say low retention has to do with leadership. Sometimes it does, but it seems to have far less to do with ‘who’ the sheriff or the chief is, and more to do with wages.”

To further emphasize his point, Merrell noted that the City of Elba recently came through Covington County and hired away officers from nearly every department in the county, “because they were paying a much better wage.”

Merrell implored local government officials to address the funding for law enforcement.

“When your pay scale is so low that you are dead last, you are never going to retain anyone. And that compromises public safety. The people of Covington County deserve more,” Merrell said.