License plates on vehicles all across Wyoming feature the silhouette of a rodeo rider atop a bucking bronc, holding aloft a cowboy hat. The iconic image is Wyoming’s official logo, a state-owned, registered trademark that serves as a ubiquitous symbol of the Cowboy State’s cultural identity.
But sheriff’s deputies riding in cruisers—or on horseback—in Sublette County, about 80 miles south of Grand Teton National Park, won’t be sporting cowboy hats any longer under. A new dress code in the department prompted one longtime local lawman to retire early, saying he’d rather quit than give up his beloved hat and boots.
Newly elected Sheriff Stephen Haskell is surprised at the dust-up over his policy change, which is aimed at having all deputies wear the same uniform, rather than a combination of varying outfits that he said left them looking like the “Skittles patrol,” sporting a rainbow of colors.
“All law enforcement is supposed to be professional and look the same, with some uniformity,” said Haskell, who employs 68 deputies across a sprawling, rural county that covers nearly 5,000 square miles, but is home to only 10,000 residents.
With detention officers wearing one uniform and patrol deputies wearing another, Haskell said some people were confused about who was a member of the Sheriff’s Office. Requiring ball caps and rubber-soled boots while banning cowboy hats and cowboy boots was also a move aimed at officer safety, he said.
But 28-year department veteran Gene Bryson was too fond of his cowboy hat, leather vest and cowboy boots to make the change to the new uniforms, and chose retirement instead of a makeover.
“When you take away my individuality, I don’t want to stay,” said Bryson, 70, who grew up on a ranch in Montana and has spent a lifetime in law enforcement.
Bryson said one other Sublette County deputy had worn a cowboy hat, but retired last month. So Bryson told the new sheriff that he didn’t want to order new uniforms, “and if that’s what he wanted, I was gone.”
Haskell was surprised Monday to be fielding media inquiries about Bryson’s departure, and said the change was well-received within the department and in the community.
“I don’t want deputies slipping and sliding and falling on their rear-ends” while wearing slick-soled cowboy boots in snow and ice, said Haskell, 53, a longtime resident of Wyoming and Utah who rode in the semi-pro rodeo circuit for seven years, and retired from the U.S. Marines after a 25-year career that included combat in Somalia.
Haskell said he often wears Western gear while off duty, including a cowboy hat and boots. But he expressed measured bemusement at media interest in Bryson’s high-profile exit.
“It’s crazy,” he said, adding that no other deputy had refused to wear the new uniforms. “I’m just trying to bring a level of professionalism to the department.”
Bryson said he switched from patrol duty to working as courthouse security last year, and had already planned to retire later this year anyway.
The move will allow him more time to focus on a gun store he owns in Marbleton, Wyo., Bryson said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].