Do the men in blue need more green?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 4, 2008

NATCHEZ — When Officer Ben Davis puts on the uniform, straps in his gun and heads to the streets he sees black and white, not green.

Davis is the cut and dried type. He deals in right and wrong, not the gray in between.

And all he wants to do is help.

Email newsletter signup

Originally from Natchez, Davis was in the Army for 20 years before becoming a police officer in Natchez.

“There were two things I wanted to do — be a soldier and a police officer,” he said.

He’s been working for the Natchez Police Department for a little over a year, and he said what he likes most about his job is helping children.

“I gave a kid a ride when he was tired one day because he had to walk across town,” he said.

And the moments he finds the most rewarding are when people tell him thank you.

“Police always have a bad reputation,” he said.

What breaks him down is not the 12-hour shifts, it’s seeing bad things happen.

“It excites me just to come to work,” he said.

For Davis, the work is enough.

But Davis is a rare bird.

Driving factors

The starting salary for a Natchez Police officer is $24,120 a year.

Though that number is higher than what officers make in Vidalia or Greenville, it does fall well below the starting salary of officers in other Mississippi town’s similar to the size of Natchez.

In McComb, the starting salary is $27,000.

In Columbus, a police officer who hasn’t even been to the academy makes $27,435. After only one year on the job they make $32,677 annually.

A patrol officer in Natchez, after working 20 years, will make $31,900, and that’s where the buck stops.

But, perhaps the biggest salary competitor for NPD isn’t out of town at all.

Natchez police officers more often than not, jump ship to join the Adams County Sheriff’s Office to tack on $5,000 more to their annual salary.

“As a result of that, we’ve lost 10 officers (to Adams County) over the last five years,” Police Chief Mike Mullins said. “All you have to do is ask the people who have left here (why) — nine of out 10 of them are going to say higher salary.”

And Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown said he has an application from approximately 90 percent of the current NPD officer staff in his office.

ACSO deputy Maj. Jody Waldrop said he transferred from the NPD in 2004, and money was the motivating factor.

“If someone can do the same job and get more money, why would they do it for less?” he said. “It’s only natural.”

NPD and ACSO employees are on the same retirement package, so making the jump is easy, Waldrop said.

So NPD continues to hire and train officers, investing time and money, that is typically quickly lost.

“It’s not just a financial cost when you have to hire new officers regularly,” Mullins said. “You would rather have a six-year veteran rather than an officer who has been here less than two years.”

Rookies make mistakes, they need supervision, they haven’t acquired swiftness and judgment through experience that veteran officers can possess.

Mullins said keeping officers for more than a year or two makes the department more efficient.

“If you have more experienced officers, sometimes you can send fewer officers to a call and they are able to work with less supervision if they have more experience,” Mullins said.

Natchez Police officers receive raises on a step-scale. At certain points in their career — steps — they are given a raise. But these increases often still aren’t enough to catch officers up with other towns.

The starting salary in Jackson is only $23,750, but after only a year the annual salary gets bumped to $28,887.

Natchez police officers don’t make that much after working even 10 years.

For a police officer in Oxford, that starting salary is $29,870, and after graduating the academy, the salary is bumped up to $30,850.

The solution

NPD’s problem isn’t new. Former Police Chief Willie Huff, who led the department from 1993-2002, said he faced the same dilemma.

“(New officers) miss things on patrol, they’re not familiar with the area, it takes a long time to become familiar with the area and the people in the area,” he said. “If you’re continually in the training mode you can never get ahead on crime.”

Huff said when he was the chief, he instituted the percentage increases to give incentives.

The step increase is good, he said, but the starting salary needs to be increased.

“If you don’t increase the starting salary, you continue to compete with other agencies that pay a higher salary,” he said.

Ultimately, Mullins said the Natchez Police Department is going to keep losing officers and continue to be a training ground until they can raise the salary to compete with Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

If that money can’t be found, then the recruiting base would have to be broadened, Mullins said.

“Right now there’s a requirement that you have to live within Adams County to work for the city or the county,” Mullins said. “What I’ve been considering asking the board is in the future to relax that residency requirement to allow us to hire officers that live within a 30-minute drive from the police department.”

But Waldrop said if the city wants to retain officers their plan of action is simple — raise the pay.

“It’s one of the most central most motivating factors,” he said.

Another option? Clone Davis.

“(Pay) doesn’t concern me,” he said. “I’m in this for the job.”

And he is absolutely certain he would never leave NPD to go to the sheriff’s office.

“We have more calls,” he said with a laugh.