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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks Jan. 8, 2020, about the new Highway Patrol firing range located on Missouri 179 at the range's groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Greta Cross / News Tribune.

With a little over a year of experience as Missouri's governor, the former Polk County sheriff said he will make law enforcement and public safety some of his top priorities for 2020.

Gov. Mike Parson, who earlier this week helped dedicate a new firearms range for the Missouri Highway Patrol, said lawmen and other public safety officers are facing huge challenges today.

"We all know the huge challenges they are facing so we have to make sure our officers are prepared to handle those challenges in the future," Parson said.

There should be bipartisan support for these issues, he said.

"I've been around long enough to know what things we can get done and what we can't get done, and I think we need to focus on things we can get done to help citizens," Parson said.

One of the big public safety successes in 2019, Parson said, was work to improve conditions in the Department of Corrections, which has been dealing with issues such as retention, pay and safety of correction officers, as well as concerns of families of prisoners over their well being.

In his State of the State address last January, Parson announced a plan to consolidate two Cameron prisons and invest the savings in staff pay raises. By the end of summer, the consolidation of Crossroads Correctional Center with Western Missouri Correctional Center was complete, and the pay plan had been signed into law as part of the state's budget bill.

The pay plan called for a 3 percent salary increase for all state workers, plus an additional and ongoing 1 percent increase for every two years of service, up to 20 years, for all non-executive corrections staff. The pay increases went into effect Jan. 1 of this year.

Despite these moves, corrections officers say much more needs to be done in terms of both pay and how the prisons are run as many officers continue to be involved in serious assaults with prisoners.

Parson agreed more work is ahead.

"It's one of the toughest jobs in state government, and for so many years, these people have been overlooked. So we are trying to play catch-up," he said. "We need to do a better job of, one, giving them the pay they deserve for working with incarcerated individuals and, two, to make sure they understand they know we've got their backs, to a certain degree."

DOC officials said they have around 800 job vacancies for corrections officers; it's about the same number as last year. But, DOC officials said, they hope the pay raise that took effect Jan. 1 will help them retain staff.

As far as getting people hired to fill positions at DOC, Parson said, the problem is it's hard to find correction officers as well as law enforcement officers all across the state.

"Look at the St. Louis Police Department," Parson said. "They're down 150-160 officers, and it's hard to get people to go into that field. So, we must, one, get people to want to go into that field and that they understand what the responsibilities are. But, you have to take care of them. You're going to have to make sure you're paying them adequately."

Parson acknowledged many of the issues raised in 2019 still need to be addressed. He said he wants department employees to know he has not forgotten more needs to be done.

"I think you have to tell them more than just, 'I hear you,'" Parson said. "We have to do more like what we did last year, which was give them more money, reorganize the DOC and shut down a prison, which saved the state $22 million, and so that money can be reinvested in the employees.

"You're going to have to have some sort of pay scale for corrections officers, like we do for other emergency personnel, to get them to where they have a fair wage for their work," he said.

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