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IN the movie “Groundhog Day,” star Bill Murray is caught in a repetitive cycle of reliving the same moment.
Veterans in the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department can relate to that. The scenario that is being played out locally concerns the pay offered to deputies in the department. It’s below that of the pay available to members of the Columbus Police Department, Indiana State Police and departments in other cities and counties.
Not surprisingly, former Bartholomew County deputies eventually wind up on the staffs of those other departments. In a story in The Republic Aug. 14 edition, Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said that he knew of at least 11 Columbus police officers who once were deputies.
It is definitely not an unusual situation. Several of Gorbett’s predecessors had to deal with similar problems. In rare instances in the past, members of the County Council recognized the implications of the issue and raised pay for deputies so that it was competitive with other departments. Unfortunately that momentum was not sustained, and pay ranges for deputies did not keep pace with those in other agencies.
This is not a situation in which salaries should be equated with all other positions in county government. There are few positions that require the training or have the same rigorous requirements as those in the sheriff’s department. There is also the potential for being wounded or even killed simply by performing the duties expected of a law officer.
While the starting base pay for patrol officers on both the Bartholomew County and Columbus police departments is relatively close ($44,767 in the county versus $44,985 in the city), advancements in the county come at a price, with sergeants, lieutenants and captains making $2,500 to $3,000 less than their city counterparts.
The county also does not have an incentive program that can provide the opportunity for staffers with a college education or prior military service or those entering specialized positions, such as water rescue or SWAT teams, to earn extra money. The city offers an additional $2,850 a year for a college background and $1,400 for military service. Specialized positions on the city department can mean an extra $500 to $1,000 a year.
It is easy to see how the sheriff’s department could be seen as an unwitting farm system for other departments, providing younger officers with valuable experience that makes them more attractive to higher-paying departments.
There are several victims in this inequity, county taxpayers chief among them. The training of these deputies comes at a price of tens of thousands of dollars. If any of them leave after a few years on the force, the department often has to start over again, expending more money for the training of replacement officers.
The disparity in pay can certainly reflect on the skill levels of individual officers. Developing a merit pay system in which certain areas of achievement can be equitably measured is a difficult undertaking in police work. Setting base standards for types of arrests or citations issued can result in unhealthy and unfair situations.
The shifts officers work have different levels of activity, and overzealous officers could abuse a quota system that not only penalizes fellow officers but the public as well. However, there are some areas where a pay differentiation could be made, such as in college background, maintaining a certain level of physical fitness and pursuing additional training in specialized areas.
The bottom line as far as the county department is concerned is that deputies at all levels need to be compensated fairly. Although the city and county officers work in different environments, their responsibilities and the dangers they face are similar.
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