Wyoming Appoints Its First Black Sheriff
Aaron Appelhans is going from student to making history in Wyoming as he becomes the first Black sheriff in the state’s history.
Appelhans says he used to look at the photos of past graduating classes from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy hanging on the wall and wanted to change the perception of law enforcement in his community.
“I got to see, for the most part, ain’t a whole lot of people that looked like me around here,” he told the Associated Press.
A decade later, Appelhans was appointed sheriff, a post he took months after fury over the deaths of Black people at police hands roiled U.S. cities. As sheriff of Albany County, his jurisdiction includes one of Wyoming’s last heavily Democratic districts, but the state is heavily made up of conservative whites and he’s already faced a racist remark from a lawmaker.
In December, Republican Rep. Cyrus Western of Sheridan apologized to Appelhans after he replied to a tweet about the lawmaker’s appointment using a GIF from the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, showing actor Cleavon Little asking, “Where the white woman?”
But Appelhans says he grew up around both racism and relatives who were in law enforcement. He told the AP that he understands the tension between the Black Lives Matter movement and police firsthand.
“I am one of those people who do feel that law enforcement really needs to take a good, hard look at what we do,” he said. “Are we serving our community?”
A deputy’s fatal shooting of an unarmed, mentally ill man played a major role in Appelhans’ appointment. The 2018 police shooting death of 39-year-old Robbie Ramirez during a traffic stop caused major backlash that carried over into last summer’s protests over racial injustice and police brutality.
A grand jury declined to indict sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling for shooting Ramirez. Colling, who grew up in Laramie and knew Ramirez from school, had killed two people as a Las Vegas police officer before being fired there.
Appelhans is now the top law enforcement officer for Albany County, which is three times the size of Rhode Island, yet has just 650 African Americans out of 39,000 people. He says he is hopeful that he can change interactions between the public and police in Wyoming.
“We’ve got ‘cops’ as a nickname,” Appelhans said. “We’re not ‘cops.’ I’m listed, just like every other deputy here is listed, as a peace officer. We’re here to keep the peace. And so that’s really kind of one of the big changes I’ve wanted to have law enforcement focus on.”