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Wyoming To Honor Fallen Law Enforcement Officers on May 20

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

In the last few years, it seems the national attention has been more and more focused on law enforcement officers making bad decisions. 

But in Wyoming, appreciation for law enforcement officers is the rule, not the exception. 

So as the country observes National Police Week May 11-17, the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy in Douglas is giving Wyoming residents a chance to observe a ceremony to honor the brave men and women who have lost their lives while protecting and serving their communities.

The ceremony planned at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Memorial for Friday, May 20, is a reminder to law enforcement officers and the public that the role of a peace officer is a serious one, said academy Director Chuck Bayne.

“It brings a sense of reality and soberness that (the job) is not all fun and games,” he said. “It’s very serious. This is not a role in a movie.” 

In 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed May 15 as National Peace Officers Memorial Day. The week in which May 15 falls is designated as National Police Week – a recognition established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1962 to recognize those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others.

In Wyoming, this year’s Fallen Officer ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, May 20, in front of the Law Enforcement Academy.

“We have a marble monument that’s here in front of the academy that all of the names of the fallen law enforcement officers in the history of Wyoming, their names and the dates of which they passed are engraved on that memorial,” said Bayne. 

Since 1776, there have been 25,767 known line-of-duty deaths in America, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. 

In Wyoming, the list totals 68 officers who have lost their lives, most recently Lt. Mark “Mont” Mecham with the Green River Police Department, who died on April 3, 2017, from a gunshot wound. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Mecham was one of 36 officers in the course of Wyoming’s history who was killed by gunfire.

Bayne, who has been involved in Wyoming law enforcement for the last 41 years, told Cowboy State Daily that the annual ceremony honoring fallen officers is very personal to him.

He listed eight officers he knew who had been killed in the line of duty, including Converse County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Stanford, who drowned in 2011, and Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Chris Logsdon, who died in an automobile crash in 1998.

“So, I have quite a number of personal experiences of knowing these guys as partners and colleagues in law enforcement – and the longer you’re in this business, I guess, the more chances you have of that,” he said.

Bayne said that in his role as the director of the Law Enforcement Academy, teaching new recruits the skills they need to be effective officers, he tries to educate trainees about the hazards involved in their chosen career – and the annual remembrance ceremony is a sobering reminder.

“It’s that these things do happen and can happen to them,” Bayne said. “And we try to teach them about what they need to do to help prevent being on the (memorial) wall.”

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Wyoming Cops Say Physical Fitness Is Important But Measuring Waistlines Not The Way To Do It

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Photo by Jimmy Pozarik/Getty Images
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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Physical fitness is important to the law enforcement community but significant disagreement surrounds the way it’s measured.

A controversial new program in Texas measures the physical fitness of state troopers by their waist sizes.

The Texas Department of Public Safety recently rolled out a program where men with a waist size exceeding 40 inches and women whose waists are larger than 35 inches are put on a weight loss plan and failure to achieve desired results could mean loss of bonuses, overtime, or even removal from duty.

Don’t expect a similar plan to be unveiled in Wyoming. Law enforcement leaders told Cowboy State Daily that the size of one’s body is not the right standard to measure physical fitness.

Where they do agree with Texas is the importance of a good physical condition. But officials say there are better ways to achieve it.

Size Isn’t A Good Approach

Sheriff John Grossnickle of Sweetwater County, once an NCAA track athlete, discounts the approach overall.

“Look at a football team,” he said.  “Your offensive linemen are in great shape but they look completely different than a cornerback or a wide receiver.”

“So mere size isn’t a good approach,” he said.  “There are other ways to deem if a person is in physical shape.”

Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, agreed, stating that waist size is a poor measure of whether or not officers can do their jobs.

“I can show you a couple big boys that run circles around a whole bunch of high school athletes. They are definitely not out of shape with their 40-inch waists,” Oedekoven said.

Both Grossnickle and Oedekoven said officers know it’s in their best interests to stay in shape because of the challenges of the job — whether it be getting into a physical altercation, suffering a broken bone, or even getting shot at.

People recover more quickly if they are physically fit. 

“Your body is going to go into shock when one of these things happen so you will benefit the better shape you’re in,” Grossnickle said. 

Comprehensive Wellness

That’s where mental fitness comes in, said Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick.

The whole picture is what’s important he said.  That’s why his office promotes a combination of both physical and mental fitness.

“We’re requesting more and more from our officers,” Glick said. “With everything that’s going on in the world right now, we’ve got to make sure that we are mentally fit as well.”

Some call it comprehensive wellness. Physical, mental, and even financial wellness is important, Grossnickle said. But he took it a step further.

“We’re going to add a dietician too,” he said. “Because we know how important it its to keep the body sound for the job because it’s so difficult.”

Harder Job

And the job has gotten harder, many believe.

Oedekoven said people may be more disposed to fight arrest than in the past and to that end, being in a better shape — overall — is better for the officer and better for the public they are sworn to protect.

“People are more willing to stab you, shoot you, run over you, and that was unheard of years ago for the most part,” he said. “I think officers are very conscious of their physical fitness having a significant impact on their ability to survive and do the job.”

Problem in Wyoming?

Former Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said law enforcement officers are in better shape now than they were 30 years ago because staying in shape has become so much a part of the culture.

At the Cheyenne Police Department, he said, that culture is so important that officers are paid to workout.

“We allowed on-duty training, workout training for one hour each shift,” Kozak said. “It’s a great incentive.”

He said there is annual testing and a recognition program for those who had improved the most year-over-year. It’s a carrot rather than a stick approach, he said.

“This is all positive reenforcement,” he said. “And that makes the difference.”

As for the stigma of cops in donut shops? That’s gone by the wayside, he said.

“I don’t think you’ll see that much of it anymore,” Kozak said. “We don’t like the stereotype. We’ll laugh at it. We’ll make fun of it. But you don’t see it much anymore.”

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Laramie County Sheriff’s Dept Down 47 Deputies; Former Police Chief Blames Leadership

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

More than 25% of the deputy’s positions in one of Wyoming’s largest sheriff’s departments are vacant and a former Cheyenne police chief is blaming the shortage on a problem with leadership.

The Laramie County Sheriff’s Office force is down by 47 deputies, more than 25% of its deputy positions. Eight positions filled by civilians are also vacant, former Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak, now a candidate for sheriff, told Cowboy State Daily on Monday.

“Many of the deputies have reached out to me saying they’re leaving because of leadership issues within the agency,” Kozak said. “Several of them who have left have asked if we would consider hiring them back if there are leadership changes.”

Kozak added that current department staff have also asked whether he would consider re-hiring them if they were to quit now and return if he is elected sheriff in November’s election.

Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick, sheriff’s Capt. Don Hollingshead and community relations manager Brandon Warner did not immediately return Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Monday.

Glick is retiring at the end of his term. In addition to Kozak, Hollingshead is also running for the office.

Kozak said that the issues within the department seem to have gotten worse since he was ousted as chief when Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins took office last year.

“I know Sheriff Glick is retiring and I have a suspicion that he’s maybe backed out a little bit to let his captains run the show,” Kozak said. “I think that’s when the issues started to appear.”

According to a Laramie County human resources survey conducted in 2021 and shared by Kozak, 55% of the sheriff department’s staff did not believe management takes employee feedback seriously, 62% believed the environment in the department did not encourage high morale and the same percentage also believed leadership did not communicate with employees. The survey showed 64% of employees believed the department’s leadership did not apply policies consistently.

“I’ve heard from employees that there are unfair disciplinary processes where different things happen to different employees according to who you are,” Kozak said. “Their ideas aren’t appreciated for improvements. Someone will stick around for pay, knowing it’s going to get better. So it’s more than just compensation.”

The majority of surveyed employees also said they were not compensated fairly, but Kozak said that Glick was working with Laramie County Commissioners to rectify the salary issue.

The department is actually down one one deputy in addition to the 47 vacant positions. The deputy has been off duty since being shot in a standoff on April 2.

Kozak noted that the cost to recruit and train a new deputy can cost up to $100,000.

The former police chief said it was important for people to know about the deputy shortage in the sheriff’s department because response times can be significantly delayed as a result.

“Half the deputies [gone] are from patrol and the other half are from the detention facility,” Kozak said. “So on the patrol side, they may only have three or four deputies working at night and they’re covering 2,500 square miles of county. It could take a while for a deputy to get to you if you need help.”

On the detention side, the short staffing means inmates are indirectly supervised and usually locked down for longer times because there are not enough deputies to watch them.

If elected, Kozak said he would change the leadership culture in the department immediately, because he said that the best way to recruit for the agency is through the employees within it.

“It’s important to make sure employees know you’re working for them on their behalf to make the environment better,” he said.

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Wyoming Deputy’s Shooting A Reminder Of Dangers Faced By Law Enforcement Officers

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Photo by Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The shooting of a Laramie County Sheriff’s deputy is bringing attention to the dangers that peace officers face every day.

The deputy, whose identity has not been released, was reported to be in stable condition after being taken to the intensive care unit at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center for treatment after he was wounded in a shootout with another man Saturday. The other man died in the incident.

While rare, such incidents have an impact on law enforcement officers throughout the state, said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.

“Fortunately, we don’t have those kinds of events happen very often,” he said.

While the officer in Saturday’s incident survived, that’s not always the case. 

Since Wyoming became a state in 1890, 60 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which keeps records for law enforcement deaths throughout the country. The majority of those killed – 36 out of the 60 – died by gunfire.

Oedekoven told Cowboy State Daily that when a law enforcement officer dies or is injured while performing his or her duties, it hits the entire peacekeeping force.

“It’s a family; it’s a neighborhood, it’s a community,” he said. “It’s all of those words in very positive terms. We come together because it’s a shared experience. It’s a shared emotion. It’s that shared grief.”

Oedekoven said his association works with all other law enforcement agencies throughout the state when tragedies occur.

“Several years ago, we worked with a number of agencies to develop a plan for a checklist on officer-involved situations,” he said. “We know about federal death benefits, state death benefits, to whom to notify where those may be so that we can assess the value and assist the agency as well.”

Oedekoven has had personal experience with officer-involved shootings and the death of an officer under his command. 

On Dec. 20, 1983, Officer Jon Hardy was on duty in Gillette when he was ambushed after responding to the scene of a residential burglary. Oedekoven, who was Hardy’s patrol lieutenant, said that tragedy has never left him.

“There’s a whole flurry of emotions, mostly incredible sadness,” he said. “There’s the incredible desire to do right by the family and the memory of Jon, in my case; and to deal with some of the aspects of the investigation to ensure that that’s handled properly.”

Oedekoven noted that in his current position, when high-profile incidents occur, his agency works with other peace officer training organizations to incorporate lessons from tragic situations and turn them into learning opportunities.

“That is part of the discussion that we have with our Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, Peace Officer Standards and Training, and the leadership of the sheriffs and chiefs to see if there are things that we should be working on, looking at and undertaking to help understand and deal with for the future,” he said.

Oedekoven pointed out that because the majority of Wyoming communities are smaller and more rural, there is more of a sense of support for law enforcement officers than in other parts of the country.

“In Wyoming, we’re very fortunate in that our law enforcement officers are close to the community, and our community is close to our law enforcement officers,” said Oedekoven. “We have incredible support from the community, to the officer’s family, to agents that the officer works for and for the agency.”

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Beloved Cheyenne Police Dog Dies; Officers Considered ‘Ruger’ One Of Them

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

When retired Cheyenne Police K9 Ruger died last week, he left behind an impressive resume of accomplishments — but also a very large family.

The German shepherd who spent seven of his 11 years in active police work was responsible for 124 arrests, 545 narcotic searches and helped with the apprehension of 35 suspects.

In addition, Ruger seized more than 80 grams of heroin, 54 grams of cocaine, and more than a pound of meth.

But it was his personality that won him a legion of fans who appreciated his work with the police force, where he was remembered as a reliable, punctual and good-natured member of the force.

“Ruger was different as he really loved people and kids,” former Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said. “Some police dogs you have to watch for because they get so protective of their handlers. But Ruger loved going to special events and doing demonstrations.”

Kozak attributed that to how Ruger was raised. Officer Chad Wellman, he said, raised him for 18 months before he started K9 training.

“The reason you have good dogs is because you have good handlers,” he said of Wellman. “He invested so much of his personal time into the training. It made a difference.”

Kozak said police dogs are known among law enforcement as fellow officers because they, too, risk their lives in bad situations.

In fact, it’s the K9 who puts itself in harm’s way to protect the handler.

“Dogs will go into a building first and search for bad people,” Kozak told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. 

“When there’s a burglary call, officers need to clear the building,” he said. “The dogs go in first and can actually do the job faster and more efficiently because of its tremendous sense of smell. But there’s a lot of risk there. They save lives by putting their lives on the line.”

Kozak, the longest-serving police chief in the history of Cheyenne, said because the K9 officers work alongside other law enforcement officers day-in and day-out, when they retire and later pass on, it’s very difficult for the entire team.

“We put our lives in their paws, essentially, and so it is tough when we lose our K9 partners,” he said.

Can a police dog really be thought of as a teammate?  Kozak didn’t blink. Of course they can. Within three months of intensive training, the dogs are ready for work and just like their human counterparts they spend 10 hours a day on the job.

The dogs know it’s time to work by watching for clues. Once their handler’s uniform is on, that’s when the “dog turns it on.”’

“They know it’s time to work,” Kozak said. “They get excited by it.”

He said that’s what made it so difficult for Ruger when he retired because he didn’t want to.

“Talking to Officer Wellman, Ruger was extremely sad when he saw Chad put on his uniform and go out the door to the police car, because he wanted to go,” Kozak said.

But the dogs have limits. At a certain age, they start having issues with their joints and can’t do the job anymore.

So it was couch-potato time, Kozak said, and Ruger didn’t mind that.

“Chad said he loved being a couch-potato but at the same time, he could tell he wanted to be back on the job,” he said.

Cheyenne Police Department spokesperson Alex Farkas told Cowboy State Daily that Ruger’s passing has affected people across the nation.

“People from all over the country have reached out following Ruger’s passing,” Farkas said. “Their family is very grateful for all of the support they have received. 

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Trooper Discusses Heartbreak After Fatal Crash Of Teenage Siblings From Lovell

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily 

Emergency responders in Wyoming are increasingly reaching out for help after traumatic or stressful experiences, breaking the stigma that used to be attached to such assistance.

After the tragic death earlier this month of two teenage siblings near Powell, Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Randy Davis took to Facebook to express his feelings about working a crash scene involving two young people he knew personally. 

“In this job, we see a lot of things that most people don’t have to see, and we deal with a lot of things that most people don’t have to deal with,” Davis told his Facebook followers. “Normally, we say, ‘Well, it’s part of the job.’ We try not to let it bother us.” 

“The difference in this one was, I knew these two kids, I know their family, I’ve gone to church with them and their family,” he continued. “And it hits you a little differently sometimes when you’re close to the situation.”  

Davis went on to urge his fellow officers and first responders to seek help when they feel overwhelmed – a topic he expanded on in a conversation with Cowboy State Daily. 

“I think the old school way of thinking of, you know, you’ve got to tough it out, you can’t let your feelings show, you’ve got to be able to be that tough guy, or my coworkers are going to make fun of me if I feel like I need to reach out for help – I think that’s still in some departments, probably,” Davis said. “But we’re pretty fortunate here in the Highway Patrol now that they make (assistance) available to us.”

One way the Highway Patrol supports its staff is through an Employee Assistance Program, which allows troopers to access mental health care anonymously. 

Treatment Necessary to Recover

Lorraine Steppe, a licensed clinical social worker with The Pines Counseling in Cody, is part of that network. 

“I think most of the law enforcement agencies in the state have some type of program, where they anonymously can plug you into counselors, and you don’t have to pay for it, and you get so many sessions, and your bosses never know who’s sought treatment,” Steppe said. 

“We’re increasing the amount of people who are seeking out and finding some healing,” she added. “And sometimes the help can be talking to other law enforcement people, talking to friends and family, there’s a lot of ways you can have support.” 

Steppe pointed out that increasingly, first responders are encouraging each other to seek help when needed. 

“What I am seeing is they are talking to each other about it, they are encouraging each other to seek help, they are supporting each other in their health,” she said. “They’re even taking each other to appointments. There is a lot of talk and support around normalizing seeking mental health treatment. And it is something that we haven’t seen in years.” 

“I honestly can’t count on, probably, two hands the other troopers or officers that have either messaged me or reached out and said, ‘Hey, man, you doing OK?’” Davis said of the recent tragedy. “So I think some of that mentality is, thankfully, starting to go away.” 

“What you’re seeing, I think, is a change in how people are viewing, and seeking mental health,” Steppe said. 

Need For Trauma Specialists

Brian Kozak, the former police chief for the City of Cheyenne, said that in his early years in law enforcement, he saw firsthand the damage stress and trauma could inflict on first responders. 

“I used to work for the Mesa, Arizona, police department,” he said. “And it was a fairly large department, but I lost a few people that I worked with to suicide. A couple of my sergeants, and one in my command when I was a lieutenant.” 

Kozak said in part because of those experiences, he implemented support programs in the Cheyenne Police Department when he led that division. 

“When I came to Cheyenne to be chief, one of the first things we implemented was a very robust peer support team, which was led by a police psychologist,” he said. “The police psychologist would do training with all the officers on stress management at least twice a year.” 

Law Enforcement Suicides

However, Kozak said that attitude isn’t necessarily present in every first responder agency in Wyoming, which is why he is hosting two fundraisers this spring to raise money for wellness programs focused on preventing suicides. 

“In 2020, we lost two police officers to suicide – one in Casper and one in the Douglas Police Department,” he said. “And I think now it’s starting to hit home with first responders and law enforcement in the state that this is something we need to really talk about. Don’t be afraid anymore. Let’s talk about suicide, and how do we fight suicide. 

“You know, it’s tough with law enforcement,” Kozak added. “You know, you tend to suck it up and deal with the things that you see, but that builds up over the years. And that’s why we really have to promote that, you need to get it off your chest and start talking about it.” 

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