In December, Aaron Appelhans became the first Black sheriff in Wyoming’s history, taking over a department that was reeling from a widely-protested incident where an officer shot a Latinx man to death, according to The New York Times.
The New York Times recently profiled Appelhans, chronicling his rise from a college admissions officer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie to the sheriff of Albany County, a liberal enclave buried inside the overwhelmingly red state.
“I don’t necessarily represent or identify with everybody in law enforcement. I come in with some different ideas of how to go about doing things,” the 39-year-old told The New York Times.
Appelhans is working to make sure that police work with shelters, mental health professionals and support groups before responding to incidents and he is leading an effort to have more situations handled by counselors who do not have lethal weapons.
He is also interested in diversifying the almost entirely white and male, 42-person sheriff’s office.
“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. They just do a terrible job,” he said.
Appelhans’ rise to control of the department has been marked by tragedy.
Robbie Ramirez was shot once in the chest and twice in the back by Albany County Sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling in 2018. He was unarmed and suffering from a mental health episode when Colling shot him to death.
Laramie Live reported that a grand jury refused to prosecute Colling in 2019 and Ramirez’s family has sued Albany County for $20 million. The case gained national exposure because it highlighted one of the most persistent problems plaguing policing in the United States: the ability for officers to simply leave town and get a new job after an incident.
Colling became a Sheriff’s deputy in Albany County after being fired from the Las Vegas police force for his role in two deadly police-involved shootings. He also attacked a man who tried to film him during an incident, but even after he was fired he was able to get a job in law enforcement in Wyoming.
Critics of the sheriff’s department told The New York Times there were plenty of other issues on top of the Ramirez killing, including nepotism, selective enforcement, heavy-handed use of force and widespread accusations of blatant racism.
Appelhans would not talk about the killing with the newspaper, instead, he shared details about his previous work experience which includes a decade serving as a police officer on the campus of the University of Wyoming.
Overall, the history-making sheriff has been lauded for having a calm spirit and being community-oriented.
“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. 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,” reform-minded defense lawyer Linda Devine told The New York Times.
Appelhans interim term ends in 2022, after which he would be eligible to run for the position, according to Wyoming News.