“You don't get into law enforcement and public safety to get rich because you are just not," said Chief Edward Ryan of the Fort Walton Beach Police Department.

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

OKALOOSA COUNTY — The starting salary for law enforcement in the Panhandle can be as low as $23,920 a year in Shalimar — which is $680 less than the federal poverty level for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think that law enforcement agencies throughout the United States are underpaid,” said Shalimar Police Chief John E. Cash.

Shalimar’s small population of roughly 800 residents and low crime rates may help explain the low pay, where an entry-level police officer can expect to make $11.50 an hour. And although Chief Cash thinks the pay in his department should reflect the slightly higher pay of comparable departments in the area, he said that there isn’t a high turnover rate in his department because officers come there for the quality of life.

“I have been here for 17 years and the officers that we have are here for the community and atmosphere,” he said. “The family-oriented department that we have outweighs the pay. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of taking time off and there is very low crime.” He said that of the 75-100 reports that come in each year, most of those are traffic accidents.

The two highest starting salaries in in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties are for Walton ($37,000) and Okaloosa ($36,691) deputies.

The highest paying municipality is the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, where starting officers are paid $36,061.

“You don’t get into law enforcement and public safety to get rich because you are just not," said Chief Edward Ryan of the Fort Walton Beach Police Department. "It’s not like the NBA or the NFL where there is a multi-million dollar contract; and you don’t get into this because you have a desire to be a millionaire. You get into this because you have a desire to give back to the community.”

He added, "What you come in here for is the passion that those who cannot protect themselves — for whatever reason — they have somebody that can, and that's what we do."

In Crestview — where the population (23,567 as of 2016) and crime rate far exceeds Shalimar — the starting salary is $33,922.00, or nearly $10,000 more than Shalimar. The crime data on www.neighborhoodscout.com rates Crestview’s violent crime rate higher than the state and the nation. The site indicates that the city is only safer than 10 percent of U.S. cities.

The data on the site indicate that 5.37 out of every 1,000 residents in Crestview are subject to violent crime every year, crimes which include rape, murder, armed robbery and assault. Meanwhile the national average is 3.8 out of every 1,000 people and in Florida that number is slightly higher at 4.62 per 1,000. In addition, 1 out of every 27 Crestview residents are likely to become a victim of property crime over the course of the year, whereas in the state, that likelihood is slightly lower, with 1 out of every 36 residents likely to become a victim of property crime.

“We don’t do this for the money, but we have got to be able to support ourselves and raise a family,” said Chief Tony Taylor of the Crestview Police Department.  “I don’t do this for the money. I have been in law enforcement for over 40 years and it is a very rewarding career, it has been for me, but very frustrating too.”

And those frustration levels are not unique to Chief Taylor. According to Pew Research Center’s 2016 National Survey of Law Enforcement Officers, 93 percent of the 7,917 police officers interviewed nationwide said they experience frustration on the job, with 10 percent saying their frustration is nearly constant. 

But, according to the Walton County’s Sheriff's Office, public perceptions of police work, combined with the media’s portrayal of police, can contribute less-than-adequate funding from governing bodies who are more likely to fund more tangible items such as bridges and roadways.

“It is an arbitrary and capricious thing to see a car accident, but to see that in real life, to actually knock on the door and inform someone,” said Sheriff Michael Adkinson, Jr., of Walton County Sheriff’s Office, which has one of the higher starting salaries for deputies.

Adkinson said the pay issue for police is nothing new and based largely on the general public's belief that the job is easy.

“It is strictly a budgetary issue, it is what the public is willing to pay," he said. "This hasn’t been different for a lot of years. What we do is expensive, and by and large our budget has taken a beating. ... I think it’s a couple things, when we divide budgets up, the tangible things people think of are roads and bridges; and generally speaking, people are supportive of police. Personnel are the driver of the (law enforcement) budget and it is expensive to maintain.”

Another factor that drives down the value of police work, he says, is that some people think they can perform — or outperform — law enforcement, but in reality, they actually can’t, Adkinson said. 

“I think that many people do not recognize what is involved in being a police officer; what our police officers are expected to do," Adkinson said. "Everyone watches cop shows and everyone can tell you have to do it and do it well.”

He also said that what people think of police when they are off duty or standing idly in public also detracts from how the general public values police work.

“Several years ago I saw two deputies sitting around talking and I didn’t know, but when I checked it, I saw that the deputies were off work. A lot of what it boils down to is a perception.” 

Adkinson said cop shows and movies can overly romanticize jobs that often bring low pay and high frustration.

“This is a profession that plays better on TV than in real life,” he said.

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }