Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson's analysis of patrol officer salaries shows his deputies earn $3 to $5 an hour less than most patrol officers among neighboring cities.
After he was sworn in Monday, Peterson told the Sun Herald his long-range goal is for his deputies to be the highest paid deputies in the
state before his four-year term ends. He gave the Board of Supervisors a copy of his report, a 19-page analysis that contains salary comparisons and other information.
Peterson said he believes county supervisors will agree with him after they study his report, compiled with help from his transition team.
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The report shows Harrison County's experienced deputies make $6,000 to $11,000 a year less than Biloxi, Gulfport and D'Iberville police and Hancock County deputies. They are the fifth-lowest paid in comparison with Harrison County's five police departments and have the eighth-lowest pay cap among 10 agencies noted in his study.
A Sun Herald review of Peterson's analysis shows the salary comparisons this way:
-- Day to day in top pay, Harrison County's veteran deputies make $16 an hour.
-- A veteran Biloxi patrol officer makes $21.29 an hour.
-- The top hourly pay in Gulfport is $19.98.
-- In D'Iberville, it's $18.98.
"For years, deputies have left the sheriff's department for higher pay," Peterson said, "after the county has paid to train them. Our deputies have the equipment and tools they need, but are having to work harder because of staffing issues. They often stand alongside other officers who do the same job but make several thousand dollars more a year more to put their lives on the line.
"We have a great board and I believe that as they study my brief, they will agree that we need to look at officer salaries. We've got to give them a higher pay to make them want to stay."
Even with a recent raise, deputies' salaries are more in line with what was paid 10 years ago, Peterson said.
Peterson said he believes residents deserve an adequately staffed patrol division with officers paid well enough to want to stay in their jobs.
"We're the second-largest county in the state (in size), the state's second-largest county in population and the latest Census numbers show 83 percent of our residents live in unincorporated areas," Peterson said. "We also have the state's highest tax base."
He said staffing of sworn officer positions has gradually declined since 2009.
The Sheriff's Office is authorized to have 52 patrol positions. The county had 44 positions in the fall, when Peterson's report was compiled, and only 83 percent of them were filled. The department had hired 29 deputies in the two-year period that ended Oct. 30, but lost 24.
Peterson said it's likely more deputies will leave when higher-paying law enforcement agencies announce openings for patrol officers. He said Biloxi and D'Iberville police officials already have plans to hire more officers.
County supervisors last month gave all county employees their first 3 percent pay raise in two years.
"We're very grateful for that," Peterson said. "But it's not enough to keep experienced deputies."
Large pay gap
The raise in December set deputies' top pay at $33,280 and a starting pay of $32,000. Peterson's analysis shows a large salary gap in comparison with 10 other agencies.
Recent pay raises set the salary maximum for Biloxi's patrol officers at $44,300 after three years on the job -- $11,020 more than an experienced Harrison County patrol officer. Biloxi starts its officers at $36,000 a year.
The report shows Gulfport's patrol officers top out at $41,210. Top pay in D'Iberville is $39,494.
The top pay in Hancock County, which is about one-fourth of Harrison County's population, is $43,277.
"With national issues that have put law enforcement in a negative light within the communities they serve, we have got to make the pay worthwhile for our officers who put their lives on the line and to help them support their families, who worry about their safety," Peterson said.
Higher pay elsewhere
A Sun Herald review of related statistics shows Harrison County deputies, on average, make less than patrol officers in five of the eight metro and non-metro groups in Mississippi, including the Biloxi/Gulfport Metro area and the Jackson Metro area, which includes the state's capital.
The statistics are from a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on estimated wages in May 2014.
That report indicates the state's highest-paid patrol officers make an average of $22.29 an hour, or $46,360 a year. It includes average salaries of deputies and police in Tunica, DeSoto, Marshall and Tate counties, whose salaries are included with neighboring counties in Tennessee and Arkansas.
Lower officer pay in some areas of Mississippi brings the statewide average pay to $15.60 an hour, or $32,740 annually.
The national average pay, the report shows, is $26.81 an hour or $55,7700 a year.
Need for comparable pay
The Biloxi Police Department, whose patrol officer pay is the highest in Harrison County, is known to attract veteran officers from lower-paying agencies.
Peterson said he doesn't hold that against Biloxi or have hard feelings toward deputies who seek higher pay.
"Biloxi has a large tax base and casinos," he said.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller said he wants to believe Biloxi would still pay its officers well even if the city didn't have a strong revenue from casinos or tourism and didn't need a lot of officers to handle traffic and crowds associated with MGM Park, events such as Mardi Gras, Cruisin' The Coast, spring break, many festivals, 5K runs and other events.
"When we hire, we don't have to look very hard," Miller said. "They come to us. I'm sure it's very difficult for the other agencies because they train them and we hire them.
"If pay across the board around the county was comparable, I believe every area would benefit and we would see more younger people coming into the profession."
State troopers, whose pay is set by the state legislature, make more than most law enforcement officers. Starting pay of $38,000 a year increases every four years, up to $47,000 a year after 12 years, and even higher for more years of service.
Mississippi Highway Patrol Capt. Johnny Poulos said most people who get a job in law enforcement these days "don't sign up for the money. Our environment has changed and there's a lot of negativity against officers in general around the nation.
"It's a huge plus to offer a good pay to all officers who go out there and put their lives on the line so they can support their families while they protect the public," Poulos said.
Peterson said his transition team also realized the Sheriff's Office has more than twice as many non-sworn officers than sworn officers, with administrative and clerical workers paid more than deputies.
Peterson said he wants to use his budget wisely. He eliminated two of four positions with the rank of major when he picked his key leaders.
He wants to fill patrol and criminal investigator vacancies with employees from the corrections division.
He was prepared to ask for a 6 percent pay raise before the 3 percent pay raise was approved.
He still wants county supervisors to consider another pay raise.
"We've got to maintain the personnel we've trained," he said.
Losing patrol officers can hurt on proactive policing, traffic enforcement and patrol response times, he said.
"I want to work with the board and hope the supervisors will understand it is paramount that we keep the good officers we've trained. They know the county well. They know their jobs. And they're willing to be a part of unified policing on the Coast.
"We're different than any other county in the state. Our police departments and sheriff's office get along well and work very closely together. Others don't. We need to be unified police on the Coast. I believe we can show other areas of the state how unified policing makes a difference in public safety."