Steamboat welcomes its first female police chief

Sherry Burlingame is sworn by 14th Judicial District Chief Judge Michael O'Hare in as Steamboat Springs first female police chief Monday, Jan. 25, 2022, at Citizen’s Hall in downtown Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Sherry Burlingame never imagined herself as a chief of police.

While a student at Pennsylvania State University, Burlingame joined the ROTC program, thinking it would be a way to travel and help pay for college.

After taking a job that did not feel fulfilling to her, Burlingame participated in a ridealong with the local police department.

Twenty-five years later, Burlingame is thrilled to sit in the police chief’s office of the Routt County Combined Law Enforcement Facility, her second-story window overlooking Mount Werner.

“I never intended upon promoting through the ranks, much less being a police chief,” Burlingame said in a Wednesday interview. “I’m the kind of person that, when I see something that needs to be fixed, I get involved in fixing it.”

Burlingame spent her law enforcement career in Arizona, where she rose through the ranks of officer, sergeant, lieutenant, commander and assistant chief. As her children grew older, the family agreed they wanted to leave the desert for a colder and more mountainous lifestyle, so she began exploring jobs in Colorado.

The job in Steamboat Springs stuck out to Burlingame, and she applied because of the outdoor lifestyle, tight-knit community and respected department.

“I take jobs because they appeal to me, and they appeal to my lifestyle,” Burlingame said. “I lived in the big city, but I’m a small-town girl that loves mountains at heart.”

Burlingame learned to ski while in the ROTC program, and while she’s no expert, Burlingame said she is excited to take advantage of Steamboat’s most famous asset.

“I spent quite a few years chasing people that were far better than me down the mountain,” Burlingame joked. “I’m not fantastic, but I can hold my own, and I’m good enough to get myself out of trouble.”

Burlingame is the city’s first female police chief, which, she said, is something she’s used to looking back on her career in a male-dominated field.

According to Statista, a statistics portal that pulls research from various journals, women made up only 13% of law enforcement officers in 2020. While the website did not break down law enforcement leadership positions by gender, Burlingame said she was used to being the only woman at the table in meetings with law enforcement leadership.

“There have been times in my career where it’s been difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated field, especially as I rose through the ranks,” Burlingame said. “I hope having a female police chief helps attract other woman to be a female in law enforcement.”

Burlingame said one goal of hers is to mentor the department’s female officers through leadership positions and encourage them to chase their dreams.

Still, Burlingame said she tries not to focus too heavily on gender, rather on being the best officer and leader she can be.

“I feel a lot of responsibility knowing that I’m a role model for a lot of officers out there,” Burlingame said. “It’s my job to mentor all of our officers.”

City Manager Gary Suiter, who makes the ultimate hiring decison for the position, said Burlingame stuck out to him.

“You have to test out these candidates to make sure their answers are consistent from beginning to end and that their passion is there,” Suiter said. “She basically won the competition and was the most qualified.”

Suiter said he was particularly impressed with her knowledge of the city’s housing and hiring crises, and she had specific plans to deal with them both.

A trend nationally, Steamboat’s police department has struggled to recruit and retain its officers over the past two years, with seven open positions currently facing the department.

Burlingame hopes to solve the issue by offering bonuses, help with housing and by ensuring officers feel supported and valued.

“In large part, retention is making people feel that they’re valued in the organization and appreciated when they go about their day and they’re doing their work,” Burlingame said. “Hiring officers right now is a super challenge for most police departments, and we’re no exception.”

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