How much is a life worth?
If you are a law enforcement officer, apparently not much in terms of pay.
Income is relatively low, danger very high, at least for officers in McIntosh County.
Nationally, working as a police officer is about 4.1 times as dangerous compared with the average job nationwide, based upon the workplace fatality rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to Statista, an online company that provides a variety of consumer data, in 2021 there were 660,288 full-time law enforcement officers employed in the United States.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) said that was the same year that the number of law enforcement professionals who died in the line of duty increased 55 percent over the previous year.
As of December 31, 2021, says NLEOMF, 458 federal, state, county, municipal, military, campus, tribal and territorial officers died in the line of duty during that year.
Statistically there are more dangerous jobs than law enforcement.
According to the USBLS, fishing and hunting workers have 132.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers; loggers have 91.7 fatalities per 100,000; roofers have 47 fatalities per 100,000.
The fatality rate for police officers is 14 per 100,000.
Men and women who wear a badge, strap on a gun and go to work never know if they will go home to their families.
Possible death by violence is the nature of the business.
The most common cause of fatalities in law enforcement is violence and other injuries by persons or animals.
Fatalities in other professions are generally accidental.
USBLS says police and detective work can be physically demanding, stressful and dangerous. Police and sheriff ’s patrol officers and transit and railroad police have some of the highest rates of deaths, injuries and illnesses of all occupations.
It is the law enforcement officers’ duty to enforce the law, protect life and property, and maintain order at the risk of their own lives.
The November 5, 2020 publication Industrial & Hygiene News (ISHN) did a study confirming that some jobs are significantly more dangerous than others, but that the most dangerous jobs pay a salary that is below the May 2019 annual mean wage of $53,490.
Law enforcement officers in McIntosh County are well aware of the low pay, lower than most surrounding counties and communities.
McIntosh County Chief Deputy Jared West says deputies, dispatchers and jailers are underfunded.
“Our guys earn $15.52 an hour. I can’t hold onto people at that salary when they can get $10 more an hour with the Creek and Cherokee Lighthorse Police,” he said. “There is a big pay disparity. We got left behind. Deputies make less than janitors.”
McIntosh County Clerk Deena Farrow said regular deputies make about $1,302 biweekly, which translates to slightly less than $34,000 annually.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol announced last week that 19 cadets would be graduating from the OHP’s 71st Academy in June.
The announcement boasted that it was the first class in which all 19 of the graduates had at least two years prior experience in law enforcement.
“The 19 graduates come from different backgrounds in law enforcement, including police and sheriff ’s departments,” the announcement said.
Low-paying officers in some jurisdictions seems to be fertile ground for recruitment.
An OHP cadet earns $57,762.
A recruit in the Tulsa Police Department Academy makes $54,178. The average income for a first year officer is $70,401.
Recruits with the Oklahoma City Police Department earn $61,700, and OKC offers a hiring bonus of $10,000.
The Muskogee Police Department pays a first year officer about $51,300.
The starting salary for a police officer in San Francisco is $103,116.
“Bigger departments try to recruit me at least once a month,” said Eufaula Police Sgt. Tyler Lewis, head of the local police union.
He gave up a career in welding to become a cop.
“It was a big pay cut,” he said.
After five years with the department, he says he makes a dollar more an hour than someone just starting out in Eufaula.
“Law enforcement in general is not paid enough,” he said. “But in my opinion, it’s a calling. You don’t do it for the money.”
He said he could go to Stigler, Henryetta, McAlester or any number of other places and make more per hour than he does here. He stays because he likes his hometown, where he graduated from high school, and he has children here. “I want to raise my kids in this community,” he said.
Lewis said the pay has improved some.
“Like any job, pay is a problem. But it has gotten better, but we aren’t competing with bigger cities. We know we have to grow with the city.”
He says he gets along well with City Manager Jeb Jones, whom he respects.
“He was hard to negotiate (our contract) with but there is a mutual understanding. He knows everyone wants and needs more money. But we can’t ask for big city pay. We understand we have to grow with the city – department wise, position wise and pay wise.”
One of his biggest concerns, he said, is that deputies need assistance from other law enforcement agencies.
Because they are short handed, Lewis said the police are sometimes called to help the deputies.
“There’s an exodus of experienced personnel going to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol or other counties and cities where they will get big raises,” Jared West said. “It’s harder to hold onto people. A $10 an hour raise can be life changing for the younger officers.
“I’m now to the point where I’m going to lose a detective, another experienced hand. It’s a constant rotation. We hire them, train them and they leave us. We can’t compete with state agencies. Even the police department gets paid $2 an hour more.”
The sheriff ’s department has 16 commissioned officers, as well as dispatchers and jailers.
“A dispatcher can walk out of a high stress job and walk to Love’s and get paid more per hour than they do here,” West said. “Dispatchers are so far behind in pay. The kids in the back are the same. They are struggling. A lot of them qualify for food stamps.”
West said deputies are shot at, beat up and chased, all for $15 an hour.
“It’s been several years since we’ve had a significant raise,” he said. “We will never be able to compete with the state. Even the counties around us make $3 or $4 more an hour than we do.”
He said McAlester starts at $19.41 an hour and they get a $10,000 sign on bonus if they are certified.
The sheriff ’s office is almost overwhelmed.
“We are so task heavy at the sheriff ’s office with the amount of calls. It seems like we get a new addition every month. Plus our population increases by 1/3 in the summer,” he said.
Right now the sheriff ’s office is hiring kids because that’s all the department can afford.
“We’re having to hire unqualified people because of the low pay, and we’re getting what we pay for,” he said.
West said someone needs to figure out a plan.
“Even if we can’t raise salaries significantly, we need a plan as to where we are headed. We need to get competitive with everyone else,” he said.
Jeffrey Moore, the McIntosh County Emergency Management Director, resigned last week. One reason was for a better paying job. Same position but more money.
“There’s a lot more money there. There’s a huge wage disparity in McIntosh County, which is why there is a high turnover rate for deputies,” he said. “Deputies are out there getting shot at, risking their lives. And there is such a wage gap between emergency services. McIntosh County has to come up with some way to fund the services, my job included.
“In Muskogee a dispatcher makes $18 an hour, which is $4 more than here.
“When you can go to Braums and make more than emergency services, something is wrong. The county is working to find a way, but it may be too little too late.
“We’re basically a training ground for big cities. That’s what’s happening now, and it’s getting worse.
“Checotah has the same problem. Eufaula is doing a great job where pay is concerned.”
Fortunately all of the agencies in the county work well together.
“All are professionals here. All work together. Rural fire departments. Police departments. They’re just a phone call away.”
Sheriff Kevin Ledbetter is working with the county commissioners on next year’s budget, and is hopeful there will be enough money to give deputies a raise.
He knows law enforcement is generally low paying.
“We’re trying again this year,’ he said.
He doesn’t have an issue with the county commissioners.
“They’re doing the best they can,” he said.
Nevertheless, he has a higher turnover rate than he likes.
“There’s always better jobs out there. One of the things the Sheriff ’s Association is dealing with, we keep bringing it up with the Association. The states opened up more jobs at higher pay. The tribes, their pay is better.”
Ledbetter is well aware there is not a lot of extra money, and so he generally asks for the same amount in his budget each year.
“I know we eat up a majority of the county budget as it is,” he said.
Deena Farrow is as aware of the plight of law enforcement pay as anyone. She is married to retired Eufaula police officer Marty Farrow.
She said the 2022 county budget was $3,068,207.28. Out of that amount, the sheriff ’s office received $1,478,755.62, which was more than 1/3 of the entire budget.
Farrow said the sheriff may receive a bump of $50,000 to $60,000 in the upcoming budget for 2023-2024.
But that amount may not go to salaries. There are other financial demands.
“He may have other plans for it. I don’t want to say how he should spend it. I don’t know what his plans are,” Farrow said.
She says she is sympathetic towards the overworked and underpaid law enforcement officer.
“I hate it that we’re not able to pay lawmen more. A priority in conversations among the commissioners is how to get raises for the officers. But the money just hasn’t been there.”