According to a 2018 study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for law enforcement officers in Kentucky is lower than in most surrounding states.
The May 2018 report said the average salary for all patrol officers and sheriff's deputies in Kentucky was $45,600. By comparison, the average for patrol officers in Indiana was $55,310, Ohio's average was $61,040 and Illinois' average for officers and deputies was $75,710.
Owensboro Police Department Chief Art Ealum said he plans to advocate for increased salaries for OPD officers when city officials begin discussing their next budget in 2020. Both Ealum and a member of the command staff at the Daviess County Sheriff's Department said salaries continue to be an issue when their respective agencies are hiring or trying to retain staff.
"We need to figure out a way to pay" officers, Ealum said in a Friday interview. He said officers are "doing something most people cannot or will not do. What would we do in a world without law enforcement?"
According to the 2018 "comprehensive study" on state law enforcement prepared by the Department for Criminal Justice Training, the average salary for an entry-level peace officer in Kentucky was $33,492. The study said OPD's entry-level salary was $37,627. The starting salary for a deputy at the Daviess County Sheriff's Department was $40,500, according to the report.
Maj. Barry Smith, chief deputy for the sheriff's department, said deputies will receive a salary increase in January because changes in the public employee health insurance plan call for deputies to pay premiums.
On some plans "we went from charging nothing to charging up to $7,500 a year," he said.
In 2018, Owensboro city officials approved retention bonuses for OPD officers, with officers receiving the lump sum payments at three, six, nine and 12 years of service. The bonuses range from $2,000 to $6,000.
OPD is competing with other law enforcement agencies that are all trying to attract officers, Ealum said. Officials have said previously that law enforcement is also competing with the private sector because people with law enforcement experience have leadership and decision-making skills.
The competition between law enforcement agencies is strong, with agencies watching how the others raise salaries or offer bonuses, and then responding in kind, Ealum said.
"We are all recruiting from the same pot," Ealum said. People interest in law enforcement careers are not solely looking to work in cities like Owensboro, and will go where they get the best job offer, Ealum said.
"You can only ride the wave of a good reputation for so long," Ealum said. "You have to pay people."
Changes to the pension system also caused several retirements at OPD, Ealum said.
Law enforcement careers require sacrifices, including working holidays, missing family time and dealing with constant public scrutiny and a "lack of respect." Ealum said. To attract and keep people, officers need to be compensated, he said.
"You've got to commend the people who come to do it," Ealum said. "... You'll never be able to pay a police officer what they are truly worth. I recognize that and accept it. But we could do so much better."
Sheriff's department officials said previously they keep a file of applications from people interested in working for the department.
"That pool is getting smaller and smaller," Smith said Monday. "We have some applications, but we don't have near as many applications as we had four or five years ago.
"There are many times we interview, and (the candidate) will be in the process of interviewing at other agencies," Smith said.
There are various reasons beyond pay why a starting officer might choose one agency over another, such as geographic area or opportunities to be promoted and learn new career skills, Smith said.
Retaining deputies who are in the "Tier III" state pension system will be an issue going forward, Smith said. Tier III employees are in what is often called the "hybrid 401(k)" plan, which guarantees a 4 percent return on investments into the plan, but is not the defined retirement benefit officers in "Tier I" and "Tier II" plans receive.
People in Tier III plans will leave law enforcement for the private sector where higher salaries will allow them to put more into their retirement accounts, Smith said.
"You see that in the private sector, where people change jobs every five years," Smith said. "As we move forward, careers in law enforcement are going to be hurt. You're not going to see as many 20- to 25-year law enforcement careers, in the state of Kentucky especially."
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse