Meet Wyoming’s New Black Sheriff, the First in State Historical past

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LARAMIE, Wyo. – Ask Aaron Appelhans if he ever wanted to be a sheriff and he will say no.

“I don’t necessarily represent or identify with everyone in law enforcement,” said Sheriff Appelhans, who was named sheriff of Albany County, Wyo, in December. “I come up with different ideas on how to do things.”

Sheriff Appelhans, a black man, now heads one of the historically whitest law enforcement agencies in Wyoming, one of the whitest states in the country. He is the first black sheriff in the 131 years that Wyoming was a state.

The appointment is symbolic of both Wyoming and the Mountain West, which has been isolated from much of the national reckoning of race and policing. Proponents of the law enforcement overhaul say Sheriff Appelhans’ tenure will be a test of whether change can take root in a law enforcement culture historically anchored against it.

“The reform that everyone is talking about comes whether they like it, like it or not,” said Charles P. Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, which represents around 9,000 Black and Brown officers whole country.

Sheriff Appelhans, 39, inherits a troubled division plagued by the problems documented in the sheriff’s offices across the area. Allegations of nepotism, selective enforcement and excessive violence have spread in the Albany County Sheriff’s office for years, critics say.

Even the appointment of Sheriff Appelhans was born out of controversy: he was named to extend the tenure of David O’Malley, who resigned in 2018 for the shooting of an unarmed man, Robbie Ramirez.

Sheriff Appelhans is from Colorado and carries little of the strict formality often associated with sheriff’s offices. He worked as the admissions officer for the University of Wyoming at Laramie before eventually spending a decade with the university’s police department, a path he’d never particularly imagined. He speaks regularly to the news media and chooses to deal directly with reporters rather than through a spokesperson.

Sheriff Appelhan’s approach is a powerful departure for a Wyoming sheriff, a famous, sometimes archaic, institution central to the lore of a vanished American West. The sheriff’s offices are historically white, inaccessible to the public, and politically powerful. As small as the role of sheriff’s offices is in urban areas with large urban police departments, they are much larger in rural states like Wyoming and Montana and parts of the Midwest and operate with comparatively little public oversight.

“They are the front runner in the counties,” said Chris Walsh, the executive director of the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which certifies law enforcement personnel in the state.

In such sparsely populated areas, small towns can rarely afford to have their own police force, so most law enforcement duties fall on the county sheriffs. In Wyoming, sheriffs are elected for four years with no limits. many have held office for decades.

“The sheriff is inherently far less in control,” said Karlee Provenza, a House Democrat who is also executive director of Albany County for Proper Policing, an advocacy group. “The process is supposed to put this oversight in a ballot box. And that’s slow, unreliable, and no real accountability. “

Located in the high desert between the foothills of the Front Range and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Laramie is a liberal anomaly in the deeply conservative ranchlands of Wyoming, a phenomenon shared by a robust population of college students at the University of Wyoming is supported. Outside of Laramie, mugwort and livestock make up much of the rest of Albany County.

One of Sheriff Appelhans’ challenges will be restoring public confidence after Mr Ramirez was shot dead by Albany County Sheriff’s Assistant Derek Colling in 2018. Mr Ramirez, who his family said had a mental illness, was shot once in the chest and twice in the back by Mr Colling while he was in a traffic obstruction. A large jury declined to pursue Mr Colling for involuntary manslaughter in 2019. Mr. Ramirez’s family has filed a lawsuit against Albany County for unlawful death for $ 20 million.

The incident drew national attention to the ease with which troubled officers can move freely from one department to another. Following Mr. Ramirez’s death, it was revealed that Mr. Colling had previously been released from the Las Vegas Police Department after being involved in two fatal police shootings and later violently beating a man who tried to film him.

Mr Ramirez’s name was sometimes called by protesters both in Laramie and elsewhere in the state during the summer when hundreds of thousands of people marched across the country against police brutality.

Sheriff Appelhans didn’t want to talk about the incident or the lawsuit. But he admitted that the history of the department was one of the things that had made him suspicious when considering taking the sheriff’s job.

“I think what he brings into the sheriff’s office is a calm: he speaks softly, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover,” said Linda Devine, a Laramie defense attorney who is campaigning for a criminal justice overhaul . “I think Aaron has a really good heart, I think he has really good intentions and I think he wants to bring this community together.”

The mid-term departure of Mr. O’Malley means that Sheriff Appelhans will not be eligible for election until 2022.

In the meantime, he’s planning an aggressive approach to bringing about cultural change in the sheriff’s office. He leads efforts to coordinate the police response with resources such as shelters, mental health workers and support groups. Armed police responses, he said, can often escalate into situations that could be better handled with counselors or non-fatal violence.

And he said he intended to diversify the 42nd deputy sheriff’s office where he said he was the only black officer. Five MPs are women.

Sheriff Appelhans said he has unilateral powers over hiring decisions in the department and is actively searching for applicants. He intends to hire more black, Latin American and female officers.

“Law enforcement is not very good at reaching every other population that is out there, especially women and people of skin color,” he said. “You just do a terrible job.”

Wyoming sheriff’s offices have a long history of racial prejudice, proponents say. The problem Sheriff Appelhans faced was faced early in his term in office: On his second day in office, a Wyoming State representative, Cyrus Western, tweeted a racist gif from the Blazing Saddles movie regarding the sheriff’s appointment Appelhans.

“I didn’t mean to say that I knew it was coming, but it didn’t surprise me when it came,” said Sheriff Appelhans of the incident. “It’s not something I haven’t dealt with in my entire life. Unfortunately, I’m used to it. “

Mr. Western later apologized for the tweet, insisting that he hadn’t meant it as a demeanor of the state’s first black sheriff.