A few years ago I was traveling in the southern United States, returning from a vacation with my family. Late in the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station near Tupelo, Mississippi to fill up and get some snacks. As I was standing at the gas pumps I noticed a county sheriff’s squad car pull up nearby and the deputy got out to clean his windshield. He was a sergeant, probably in his late 30s, and I nodded to him and said hello.
I am always eager to learn about law enforcement in other parts of the country so I introduced myself as a fellow officer and started chatting with him. I learned that he was 38 years old, had been with the sheriff’s department for about 15 years and had been a sergeant for 5 years. He said he had just started his shift and would be on duty that night until 2 a.m.
After talking for a few minutes I asked him a question I wasn’t sure he would be comfortable answering. “If you don’t mind,” I said, “How much do you guys make down here?”
“About forty thousand a year,” he said.
I was stunned. That was a fraction of what I made as a sergeant in Wisconsin.
“Forty thousand? Is that before overtime and everything?” I asked.
“We don’t get overtime,” he replied.
“What do you mean? What if you have to go to training? Or have to go to court on your day off?”
“I haven’t had any training in at least 3 years,” he said. “And if I have to go to court it is on my own time.”
I did not know what to say, and apparently, he could tell. “It’s not all bad,” he continued, “after 20 years we can retire at 50% of our salary.”
I quickly did the math in my head. “Oh, man,” I thought.
“Look,” he said. “I work in a very poor county in the poorest state in the nation. It’s not that they don’t want to pay us more, they just don’t have any money. We understand it. Most of us in law enforcement have to work a second job during the day just to make ends meet. That’s just the way it is.”
After a short pause, he added, “I love what I do.”
I walked over to shake his hand, and with great respect, I thanked him for his service. I don’t think I have ever met anyone else so internally motivated by the call to serve others. I sometimes think about that young sergeant, and I hope he still loves what he is doing.
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