Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Wyoming Sheriff Bans Cowboy Hats and Boots: Insensitive or Good Policing?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Wyoming Sheriff Bans Cowboy Hats and Boots: Insensitive or Good Policing?

Article excerpt

There's a new lawman in town, at least in Sublette County, Wyo., and Sheriff Stephen Haskell says no more cowboy boots nor 10-gallon hats on the job. Miffed, a veteran deputy, Gene Bryson, retires on the spot, saying some things - especially a man's hat and boots - shouldn't be up for debate.

It's in part a story of police progress on the American frontier, where rustlers, hustlers, wranglers, and (now) meth tweakers still ramble around under the vast open skies.

But while the boots ban may be an honest effort by a new sheriff to professionalize a rural police department that patrols 5,000 square miles and serves 10,000 people, the 40-year veteran deputy might have a point, too: What better way to humanize the local constabulary than by letting them look like the folks they police?

Though it's in part a light-hearted anecdote from a sparsely populated part of the West, the hat-and-boot showdown does in some ways resonate beyond the Wyoming ranges, particularly at a time when police organizations ponder reforms to bridge at times wide divides between deputized and non-deputized citizens.

Studies have shown that citizens do come away with different impressions of police depending on what styles of clothing and and even manner hat they wear.

For some experts, Sheriff Haskell's rule-change reflects a growing awareness that police professionalization requires uniformity.

"Just as a matter of safety and effectiveness, it's absolutely the right thing to do," says Samuel Walker, the author of "The New World of Police Accountability," and an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "The resistance is a classic example of how there's a culture among the deputies that's clinging to an old-fashioned approach that is just no longer justified."

Sheriff Haskell, a former Marine, is from the professional school, where the notion of officers customizing their uniform until they look like a "Skittles platoon" is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dangerous. He cites deputies slipping on ice in their cowboy boots or chasing down wind-blown cowboy hats, as examples.

The new uniform includes black trousers, a tan shirt, black boots, and a black baseball hat. "We are one team unified in one purpose - that is to do our job," Haskell told the Casper Star- Tribune.

Most of the county haven't had a problem with Haskell's decision, says Pinedale, Wyo., Mayor Bob Jones. Deputies in Sublette deal with everything "from minor vandalism to capital crimes," says Mr. Jones.

"I think it's been positive," he adds. "He's a new sheriff and he's trying to make things uniform. He has 25 years in the Marine Corps, so I think he's trying to instill some of his values [regarding] working together as a team, and everyone having the same uniform is integral to that, even though it might seem insignificant. …

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