This week’s Courier Herald column:
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston this week unveiled a $75 million spending proposal for “Law Enforcement and Mental Health”. The headline feature of the package is a one-time $1,000 bonus for every POST certified local police officer and sheriff’s deputy in the state. State law enforcement officers received a $1,000 bonus along with other state employees earlier this year.
$25 million of the proposal would fund one-time expenses. $50 Million would fund permanent pay raises and other increases to state baseline spending. If this proposal were to be graded with Washington math – where spending or tax cuts are talked about over a decade – the speaker has just proposed Georgia commit to a half billion-dollar program to improve public safety.
Critics of the Speaker were quick to attempt to label this an election year ploy designed to appeal to voters’ anxiety over rising crime. Those critics should note that Atlanta’s Mayor – someone who has declined to run for re-election amid her city’s rapidly escalating violent crime rate – this week proposed her own “office of violence reduction” to address the city’s crime problem.
Crime has become a bi-partisan issue. Georgia’s citizens are demanding action.
It’s true that some of the features of Speaker Ralston’s plan will sit well with the Republican base that has adopted “back the blue” as a bumper-sticker slogan. That’s just good politics.
When you look under the hood of the proposal however, you’ll find something that’s become all-too rare in modern election-year governance. This is not only good policy, but directly addresses many of the concerns of those whose bumper stickers say “defund the police” – while increasing police funding.
For those who want to see Georgia get tougher on crime, there are meaningful increases proposed for state level agencies that are on the front lines and in traditional support roles. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will see the bulk of the additional funds, so that the agency can bulk up the forensics specialists who process crime evidence, as well as those who investigate deaths, threats to schools, or suspected cases of election fraud.
The GBI will also be able to double the size of their gang task force under this plan. There are additional positions proposed for the Georgia State Patrol, with funding targeted toward SWAT teams and “Nighthawks” DUI task forces.
There is also careful attention paid to the court system that must adjudicate the cases brought by law enforcement. Salary scales for both Assistant District Attorneys and Public Defenders would be increased, with an emphasis on mid to senior level employees’ compensation. The goal is to retain experienced personnel on both sides of trial arguments.
The proposal also seeks to expand positions within the state’s accountability court system. These courts often provide non-traditional sentencing in drug and other non-violent cases which require significantly more human capital while prioritizing rehabilitation over incarceration.
What has not been prioritized in most reports of this proposal are the words “and Mental Health” in the headline of the press release. There are substantial permanent investments proposed here to aid law enforcement with support from the behavioral health agencies.
An additional $7 million per year would be devoted to additional crisis beds funded by the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disability. It does no good for law enforcement officers to routinely deal with citizens in need of mental health evaluation and treatment if there is no available space available to adequately evaluate and treat them.
Officers, however, need additional training to better understand the differentiation between proceeding with a citizen under a criminal apprehension or a mental health intervention. To that end, the proposal increases funding for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in order to hire additional instructors to travel the state, training front line officers in this area.
Speaker Ralston has delivered a solid proposal that not only demonstrates much needed respect and funding to the state’s law enforcement community, but also provides tangible investments in areas critical to deterring crime that traditionally fall well outside “red meat for the base” territory.
That’s not campaign sloganeering. That’s what good governance looks like.