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

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Ask Aaron Appelhans if he ever needed to be a sheriff, and he’ll say no.

“I don’t necessarily represent or identify with everybody in law enforcement,” mentioned Sheriff Appelhans, who was appointed as sheriff of Albany County, Wyo., in December. “I come in with some different ideas of how to go about doing things.”

Sheriff Appelhans, a Black man, is now at the helm of considered one of the most traditionally white legislation enforcement establishments in Wyoming, considered one of the nation’s whitest states. He is the first Black sheriff in the 131 years that Wyoming has been a state.

The appointment is symbolic for each Wyoming and the Mountain West, which has been insulated from a lot of the nationwide reckoning over race and policing. Advocates of overhauling legislation enforcement say Sheriff Appelhans’s tenure shall be a check of whether or not change can take root in a legislation enforcement tradition that has traditionally entrenched itself towards it.

“The concept of reform that everybody keeps talking about, it’s coming, whether they want it, whether they like it, or not,” mentioned Charles P. Wilson, the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement officers, which represents round 9,000 Black and brown officers throughout the nation.

Sheriff Appelhans, 39, is inheriting a troubled division tormented by the sorts of issues which have been documented in sheriff’s workplaces throughout the area. Allegations of nepotism, selective enforcement and extreme power have swirled round the Albany County sheriff’s workplace for years, critics of the division say.

Even Sheriff Appelhans’s appointment was born of controversy: he was named to serve out the time period of David O’Malley, who stepped down from the put up amid a lawsuit over the capturing of an unarmed man, Robbie Ramirez, in 2018.

A Colorado native, Sheriff Appelhans carries little of the stiff formality usually related to sheriffs’ workplaces. He labored as a college-admissions officer for the University of Wyoming in Laramie earlier than finally spending a decade with the college’s police division, a path he says he by no means significantly envisioned. He talks usually with the information media, opting to cope with reporters immediately fairly than by way of a spokesperson.

Sheriff Appelhans’s method is a stark departure for a Wyoming sheriff, a storied, typically archaic establishment central to the lore of a disappearing American West. Sheriffs’ workplaces are traditionally white, inaccessible to the public and politically highly effective; as small a task as sheriff’s workplaces sometimes have in city areas with giant metropolis police departments, they loom a lot bigger in extra rural states like Wyoming and Montana and in elements of the Midwest, and function with comparatively little public oversight.

“They’re the top dog in the counties,” mentioned Chris Walsh, the government director of the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which certifies legislation enforcement personnel in the state.

In such sparsely populated territory, small cities not often can afford to arrange their very own police departments, so most legislation enforcement duties fall to county sheriffs. In Wyoming, sheriffs are elected to four-year phrases with no limits; many maintain workplace for many years.

“The sheriff, by nature, has far less oversight,” mentioned Karlee Provenza, a Democrat in the State House of Representatives who can also be the government director of Albany County for Proper Policing, an advocacy group. “The process is meant to put that oversight into a ballot box. And that is slow, it’s unreliable, and it’s not real accountability.”

Nestled in the excessive desert between the Front Range foothills and Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Laramie is a liberal anomaly in the deeply conservative Wyoming ranchlands, a phenomenon bolstered by a strong inhabitants of faculty college students at the University of Wyoming. Outside Laramie, sagebrush and cattle make up a lot of the remainder of Albany County.

One of Sheriff Appelhans’s challenges shall be rebuilding public trust following the 2018 capturing of Mr. Ramirez by an Albany County Sheriff’s deputy, Derek Colling. Mr. Ramirez, who was mentioned by his household to endure from psychological sickness, was shot as soon as in the chest and twice in the again by Mr. Colling throughout a visitors cease. A grand jury declined in 2019 to prosecute Mr. Colling for involuntary manslaughter. Mr. Ramirez’s household has filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit towards Albany County.

The incident introduced nationwide consideration to the ease with which problematic officers can transfer unchecked from one division to a different. After Mr. Ramirez’s dying, it was revealed that Mr. Colling had beforehand been fired by the Las Vegas Police Department after being concerned in two deadly police shootings and, later, violently beating a man who tried to movie him.

Mr. Ramirez’s title was typically invoked by demonstrators both in Laramie and elsewhere in the state over the summer time, when hundreds of thousands of people across the country marched towards police brutality.

Sheriff Appelhans didn’t need to discuss the incident or the lawsuit. But he acknowledged that the division’s historical past was considered one of the issues that had made him cautious as he thought-about whether or not to tackle the job of sheriff.

“I think what he brings to the sheriff’s office is a calmness: He’s soft-spoken, but it doesn’t mean he’s a pushover,” mentioned Linda Devine, a protection lawyer in Laramie who’s a proponent of overhauling legal justice. “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.”

Mr. O’Malley’s midterm departure means Sheriff Appelhans won’t come up for election till 2022.

In the meantime, he plans to embark on an aggressive method to bringing cultural change in the sheriff’s workplace. He is main an effort to coordinate police response with assets like shelters, psychological well being professionals and help teams. Armed police responses, he mentioned, can usually escalate into conditions that could possibly be higher dealt with with counselors or nonlethal power.

And, he mentioned, he intends to diversify the 42-deputy sheriff’s workplace, the place he mentioned he’s the solely Black officer. Five deputies are girls.

Sheriff Appelhans mentioned he has unilateral authority over hiring selections at the division and is actively in search of candidates, including that he intends to recruit extra Black, Latino and feminine officers.

“Law enforcement doesn’t do a very good job of reaching out to every other population that’s out there, especially women and people of color,” he mentioned. “They just do a terrible job.”

Sheriffs’ workplaces in Wyoming have a protracted historical past of racial bias, advocates say. The challenge confronted Sheriff Appelhans was confronted with early in his tenure: On his second day in workplace, a Wyoming state consultant, Cyrus Western, tweeted a racist gif from the film “Blazing Saddles” in reference to Sheriff Appelhans’s appointment.

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

Mr. Western later apologized for the tweet, insisting he had not meant it as a disparagement of the state’s first Black sheriff.

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