Deputies use specials for extra cash

Work never ends for Richmond County sheriff's Deputy Michelle Thomas.

Since she began at the department five years ago, Deputy Thomas has worked special assignments nearly every weekend - whether for the Georgia Department of Transportation or a local bar.

She said that although the assignments add money to her bank account, they come with a price.

Deputy Thomas worries about spending enough time with her children, ages 10 and 14, and often tries to schedule the extra work around their school hours.

"I try not to rely on them (the special assignments), but there comes a time, being a single mom of two kids, that I have to work a special in order to make my ends meet," Deputy Thomas said.

It's an issue that many in the sheriff's office face.

At $15 an hour for a minimum of four hours, special assignments, or specials, can provide a significant boost to the typical deputy's salary.

They also free the department from the expense of furnishing deputies to provide public safety for the hundreds of bars, restaurants and road construction projects in Richmond County.

On the other hand, there are usually more specials than deputies, so someone needs to work even when he or she might not want to.

Lt. Laverte Tutt handles all of the special assignments for the department and occasionally takes care of some himself.

He said deputies shouldn't depend on the extra work to make ends meet but many do.

"It's a bad practice to depend on specials for long-term income," Lt. Tutt said.

In addition, he said, specials can be dangerous. On Feb. 18, two deputies working special assignments at Silver Bullet Lounge on Milledgeville Road had to wrestle a man to the ground after he began reaching for a pistol he had hidden in his pants, according to a sheriff's office incident report. And Lt. Tutt recalls that in January a deputy hurt his ankle working a special and had to miss some regular duty.

"That's a normal occurrence," he said. "It goes with the job."

To keep their workers fresh and alert, the department requires that anyone working a special assignment take an eight-hour break before returning to regular duty.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said the fact that many deputies have to moonlight to support their families does little to attract newcomers to the department. It's a problem that not only has affected recruitment, but also retention, he said.

Three deputies resigned during the last week in February for the better pay that private-sector jobs can provide, the sheriff said. Two of them went to Plant Vogtle.

"It's very difficult not only hiring but retaining," Sheriff Strength said. "These folks are going to better-paying jobs so they can spend more time with their families,"

Deputy Thomas said she has no plans to leave the sheriff's office anytime soon, despite the stress and added hours. As often as she works the specials, she said, there are deputies who work more.

"They work a lot more hours than I do, and I'm quite sure it hurts their family life," she said. "But they have to in order to survive."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

Regular, but specials

Augusta Mall typically has three deputies at any one time, two in the parking area and one inside the mall. This can increase on the weekend.

Wal-Mart on Deans Bridge Road has three shifts, which ensures that one deputy is on duty for all hours. This can increase to four shifts on the weekend.

Georgia Department of Transportation shifts vary depending on construction. Currently, two deputies are on Interstate 20 for eight hours a day.

Augusta National Golf Club has deputies provide security and oversee on-course parking during the Masters Tournament.