CASPER — After the nation erupted in months of protests following George Floyd’s death last year, Andrew Lincowski knew he wanted to go back into law enforcement.
He has multiple graduate degrees, including a PhD in astronomy and astrobiology, but didn’t want to stay in academia. Out of everything he’d done, being a police officer was the job he’d liked the most.
He just didn’t want to be an officer in Tucson again, where he lived and had been on the force several years before. And he definitely didn’t want to join up in Seattle, where he lived for most of his doctorate.
In December, Lincowski served his first day as a Casper police officer
“People want to come here from Seattle or Portland or Illinois or wherever, all these places I wouldn’t work in,” Lincowski said. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go work in some of those places, the anti-police sentiment, the rioters ... I want to live somewhere where I’m not worried about that stuff being really bad.”
He’s not the only officer to come to Casper seeking a change in recent years — a change in scenery, a higher salary or a less dangerous place to raise a family. Officers have come from larger cities like Denver and Chicago and metropolitan areas in states including Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina that dwarf Casper in size and call volume.
The central Wyoming city, whose residents are enthusiastic in their support of law enforcement, now has a growing cohort of police officers who came here specifically for a place where they feel their job is respected.
There are just over 100 police and community service officers actively serving Casper, according to the most recent roster. Six of them were hired this year, four in 2020 and 11 in 2019. That means that about one in every five officers have been at the department for three years or less.
Not all of those officers are from out of state, of course — the department still likes to recruit locally, too.
But when people from coastal or more urban areas start looking to move to the Mountain West, Wyoming stands out. For one, it’s conservative even by the region’s standards, which means support for the police is high and vocal, even as national attention has been put on police brutality and reform.
And, while other cities may be cutting their police department’s budget or eliminating positions, Casper is still hiring. And the hiring bonuses, which start in the thousands and go higher if you’re already trained as a police officer, don’t hurt either.
Any new hire signing on with CPD gets a $3,000 bonus. If you were an officer but your certification is lapsed, that’s a $5,000 bonus. Active officers working in Wyoming can nab a $12,500 bonus, and those from out of state can take home $7,500. Salaries start in the $50,000 range for officers with no experience — and that’s all before overtime.
But an even bigger bonus, at least for a group of officers who moved here from Florida, Arizona, Illinois and Louisiana, was the community’s avid support for police.
“It’s been overwhelming, the support,” said Senior Police Officer Ryan Brownell, who left his job in Moline, Illinois, to take the post in Casper in December. “I’ve just had so many people say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ or offering to pay for my meals at a drive-thru or in a store.
“Obviously you tell them no thank you, but the gesture means a lot and shows me how much people appreciate what we do and understand and respect that.”
Brownell said that after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, he saw more people in his area of Illinois “becoming agitators” during police interactions — standing around, recording and heckling officers, especially while they were arresting people of color.
In the year following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Brownell said he also saw growing anti-police sentiment, even in Moline. His wife started wondering whether it was safe for him to park his marked squad car outside of their home while off-duty. Meanwhile, murders and shootings were becoming a near-daily occurrence in the area, and with three kids to worry about, the Brownells started looking for somewhere to move.
Officer Dave Romero, who came to CPD from a sheriff’s office in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, in 2019, said he didn’t feel comfortable eating in his uniform in the area, which includes the city of Shreveport. In the wake of Floyd’s death last year, even Casper wasn’t immune to rising criticism of the police, but Romero said critics are the exception here.
“Aside from our little stuff last summer, where people were just like, ‘F—- the police,’ everybody else has been just really nice,” Romero said. “People are like, ‘Hey man, thank you for what you do.’ I was mowing my lawn the other day, this guy stops in front of my pa- trol car ... And he’s just like, ‘Hey, man, just want to tell you thank you very much for what you do.
“I’m like, you sure? I’m not used to that.”
In Leesburg, Florida, where Senior Police Officer Jeff Broneck worked before joining CPD, Broneck said people would often tail his patrol car, taking videos and trying to catch officers doing something they weren’t supposed to. He avoided going shopping in town when possible, worried about running into someone he’d arrested.
In Casper, a larger city in a smaller metropolitan area, most of the people Broneck runs into around town are friendly faces. There are some residents who heckle or throw up the occasional middle finger, but he said that’s par for the course for police officers these days.
“Most of our community is very much behind us,” Broneck said.
Like Brownell, Broneck said violent crime also played a role in driving him away from his old department. In Casper, he sees the occasional armed robbery or other violent offense, but when he left Leesburg those were everyday calls. Less than a week out of training there, he said, he was the first officer to respond to a murder.
Broneck, who’s been on the force in Casper for around five years, said he’s starting to notice those kinds of crimes becoming more common even here. When he started, most tips he’d receive from the public were for bikes left in yards or drunk people on the streets. Now, it’s more common for people to tell him about gun violence, drive-bys or houses that attract methamphetamine dealers.
“There’s definitely more violent crime going on right now. As much fun as it is, I really don’t want to see it,” Broneck said. “It’s fun to go fast, get there... I like doing all that stuff, but I’d rather not.”
Lincowski, coming from Tucson in December, has also noticed more people fighting back during police encounters as of late.
“I’ve probably been in as many physical fights in the last six months as seven years in Tucson,” the senior officer said. “Fighting with us isn’t gonna make it better, it’s just gonna make it worse. And that’s unfortunate. I don’t know if that’s mental health or alcohol or just post-George Floyd, I don’t know why, it seems like it’s just happening more.”
When Lincowski came out to Casper last August to scout out the job, he said officers were burnt out from working overtime in the wake of a police shooting that killed one man and injured a woman. But he still left impressed with the department, and started in December.
Months later, while he was completing the tail end of his training here, he found himself caught in the middle of another police shooting — in May, when Officer Jake Bigelow shot and killed a Casper man after the man drove the wrong direction onto I-25 with Bigelow still in the car. Lincowski was left to chase in the patrol car, bringing in backup.
“In seven years in Tucson, I never had any circumstances ever quite like that,” Lincowski said, “but hopefully I reacted quick enough to go help the other officer. It’s a pretty helpless feeling when they just get driven off and all I can do is chase behind them.”
The department itself, one of the largest local law enforcement agencies in Wyoming, offers its own set of perks. One often cited by officers making the move is the availability of take-home cars, some of them unmarked, for officers to use while off-duty.
And although the department is large by Wyoming standards, it’s small enough for officers and other employees to get to know each other quickly, passing each other constantly in the back of the Hall of Justice.
That helps collaboration, the officers said, and made it easier to transition into the job after moving. Romero, whose wife gave birth to their youngest child soon after they moved from Louisiana to Casper, said several of his new coworkers even offered to cook meals for his family while she was on leave.
Romero said Casper also feels safer for his five children, whom he didn’t want going downtown in Shreveport at all. Here, he said, the schools also have more funding and resources.
High pay rates, especially for lateral officers who’ve already gone through training and have experience on the force, are a big plus often cited by those making the move. Several officers said they hope to eventually buy larger homes on more land to take ad- vantage of Wyoming’s wide open spaces, higher salaries and low taxes.
“If we got the same amount of land we’re looking at here in Louisiana, it would cost like a million dollars,” Romero said. “Taxes are so freaking high, you’re taxed to death in that state. That’s another good selling point (for Wyoming).”
Others also said they were looking for a place with less government encroachment. Lincowski, who moved from Arizona during Wyoming’s winter COVID-19 spike in December, said it was nice to not have to wear masks everywhere or worry about the town going into lockdown.
“I don’t want to live in some big city where they’re like, ‘You have to have your vaccine passport,’ and all this stuff,” Lincowski said. “If the last place is gonna do that it’s probably gonna be Wyoming.”
The setting doesn’t hurt, either. Just like the recent wave of remote workers who have been moving to Wyoming during the pandemic, officers cited the mountain, river, reservoirs and recreation available in and near Casper as a major draw. That’s especially true of those with children who want to raise them to be active and love the outdoors.
And Wyoming, with one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the nation, also has a streak of individualism that’s attractive to some, like Romero.
“People take care of most things themselves here,” the officer said. “I’m old fashioned, I guess, conservative — that’s another thing I like about Wyoming.”
During last year’s police protests, Casper’s downtown streets were lined with people armed with long guns who said they were there to protect local businesses from potential rioters. Lincowski, who was still living in Tucson at the time, said when he heard that, he took it as a sign that people were supporting the cops on the street and wanting to protect their community.
“People seem to really have a good opinion of the police here,” Lincowski said. “Especially with all the riots, I wanted to come somewhere where they already had a decent relationship with the community.”