ACSO Sheriff: Low deputy pay puts county citizens at risk

Published 6:32 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Since December 2023, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office has lost 13 deputies.

Chief Deputy Billy Neely retired. Each of the others left for jobs that are paying them more money.

One went to work for the District Attorney’s office. Three left for higher-paying jobs at the Natchez Police Department. Two left for higher-paying jobs with the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Two are going to work for higher pay at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. One is becoming a truck driver, another a mechanic, another to a private prison guard. And another is going to work at a Louisiana mental hospital.

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In addition to open positions, eight deputies are out on light duty for injuries or health issues, meaning they must do desk work only, or they are on maternity leave.

Add to these staffing woes the fact that the Adams County Board of Supervisors cut the Sheriff’s Office by 12 employees and made other cuts that amounted to $1.2 million in its 2023-2024 budget — vastly more than any other county department.

“We faced the brunt of the cuts in the county’s budget this year. It has almost devastated us,” said Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten.

Flipping burgers pays more

He said deputy pay and the struggle to find deputies who will work for less money than fast food workers make has reached a point that his office is struggling to keep the community and sheriff’s office employees safe.

The struggle to fill open positions is real, he said.

“We are the bottom feeders in terms of pay,” Patten said. He said starting pay for officers is $2 more an hour at the Natchez Police Department, “and the mayor has already said he is going to raise officer pay again in October in the new budget year. And he should. Even the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County Sheriff’s Office have moved their starting pay to $40,000 a year. Mississippi Highway Patrol is now starting officers at $50,000 a year.”

“Chick-fil-A is starting employees at $18 an hour,” said Chief Deputy Shane Daugherty. “It’s not the environment here. In fact, several of the deputies who have left told us that come October, if what deputies make changes, they will come back.”

Patten said typically four deputies are on duty each 12-hour shift. That number is now down to two deputies per shift. However, requirements are three deputies per shift, which means each member of the office’s command staff — chief deputies, majors, sergeants, captains and lieutenants, and the sheriff  — is actively covering shifts to make up for the shortage in deputies.

“I am working patrol from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday,” Daugherty said. Covering patrol shifts is in addition to their typical duties.

That means lots of overtime pay, too, for hourly employees who pull double duty.

“We’re paying 24 hours of overtime per shift,” Daugherty said.

Starting salary for ACSO deputies is $16.81 per hour, less than $35,000 per year.

“It’s worse than that for the staff at the jail,” Patten said.

Even though a majority of the jail’s inmates are now being housed by the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office at its jail facility, at any given time, 25 to 40 inmates are held at the jail, Patten said.

“Some are trusties, some are inmates who have to be kept in protective custody. They can’t be housed across the river due to the threats on their lives. We keep misdemeanor offenders in the Adams County Jail,” he said. The jail also keeps inmates with mental health issues. Concordia Parish will not take those inmates.

“We went from three jailers per shift to two. That means one is in the control room and one is on the floor. That increases the danger to staff and inmates. The jailer in the control room can’t leave the control room if an issue happens. That means we would have to call someone off of patrol to help. That is extremely dangerous, particularly at nighttime,” Patten said.

The starting wage for jailers is only $13.45 per hour. Starting pay for jailers with no experience is $12.60 per hour.

“I would love for them to give deputies no less than $40,000 a year starting out. That’s fair for an agency our size and well overdue based on the inflation we have seen in the last couple of years. And we can’t leave the jailers out. They have a very difficult job. They have to make sure inmates are bathed, that they eat, that they are safe. There is so much they have to deal with in the jail when it comes to inmates. Jailers are attacked by inmates. They have urine and feces thrown on them. They have to endure some of the worst conditions imaginable in that jail facility. Jailers need to earn the same thing as deputies,” Patten said.

“We must make some changes to keep our community safe and have staff to respond when we are called upon,” he said.

Stress takes its toll

“We have deputies who are working seven to 10 days straight. The stress and the burden that puts on them, I can’t begin to tell you,” Daugherty said. “The other issues, from me on down, each member of our staff has a second job. Whether it’s working security or mowing grass, everyone has a second job. Some have two full-time jobs. Some have three jobs.

“Do you know how hard it is to support a family, even a single mother and one child, on $35,000 a year? You can’t,” Daugherty said.

“Then, you have to be ready to make a split-second decision where someone’s life is at stake. The mental anguish alone…It’s beginning to be unbearable for them all,” Patten said.

“It’s also harder to get them to come to work overtime because they can make more money from their side jobs,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said another issue is the sheriff’s office, unlike other law enforcement agencies, doesn’t have opportunities for financial advancement unless they are promoted to a new job.

“We have no step raises, no longevity pay. You can’t stay as a deputy with any hope of advancement at all,” Daugherty said. “Why can’t we offer education incentives? We have employees with bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, but they aren’t paid anything more for that education.

“We have three people right now teetering on leaving because they can make more money in other places. You’ve got to be able to pay your bills and feed your family. You’ve got to have a decent quality of life,” he said.

Equipment and support from the community are not an issue.

“We have very good equipment and vehicles, but have had to be extremely creative,” Daugherty said.

“The public has been extremely generous. We would not have half of what we have if not for the public. This community has provided our deputies with bulletproof vests and many other things. They have stepped up and covered our deputies and I am extremely grateful for that,” Patten said. “This community doesn’t miss a beat in supporting us, but my people are hurting right now. They want to stick it out and fight, but I’m not sure how much gas they have in the tank.”

“This community has provided for us in everything we have needed, but they can’t provide salaries for deputies. That has to come from taxpayer dollars,” Daugherty said.