© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Meet Wyoming's 1st Black Sheriff In State's 131-Year History

Aaron Appelhans has taken charge of the Albany County Sheriff's Office in Wyoming. (Courtesy)
Aaron Appelhans has taken charge of the Albany County Sheriff's Office in Wyoming. (Courtesy)

For the first time in its 131-year history, the state of Wyoming has a Black sheriff.

Aaron Appelhans was appointed to lead the Albany County Sheriff’s Department in December. The department serves the college town of Laramie and the sweeping landscape that surrounds it in rural southeast Wyoming.

It’s a challenging time to take on this new job: There are two pending lawsuits against the department after a fatal shooting in 2018. And the country is still on edge after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.

Appelhans says he’s got an eye on the trial of Derek Chauvin as jury selection starts this week. The sheriff told the Associated Press that he understands both sides of the conflict between Black Lives Matter protesters and law enforcement.

The 39-year-old knows the reality of growing up as a Black man in the U.S. and how the “criminal justice system doesn’t always treat you fairly,” he says.

So as a police officer, he says he’s approaching problems “from the inside out.” His goals as sheriff involve finding better ways to serve the community he works for.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Department is looking at three reforms — de-escalation, increasing transparency and recruitment, and retention of diverse officers.

De-escalation, a major part of the ongoing reform, will involve better training for officers on handling different types of crises, such as mental health issues or substance abuse, he says.

The plan also includes being transparent with the county residents about the department and “casting a wider net” to enlist underrepresented populations into the profession, he says.

“It sounds kind of like a simple answer, but it’s really just going to communities of color and other underrepresented populations to say, ‘Hey, we think you have the skills that we could use here in law enforcement and here’s how you can help your community,’ ” he says.

Appelhans serves a very white county: He’s only one of about 670 Black people who live there. Wyoming is also one of most conservative states in the U.S. Despite progress made, Wyoming “remains very racist,” said Stephen Latham, president of the state NAACP, in The Denver Post.

Still, Appelhans says the community has an appetite to address these reforms, leaving him “optimistic” that the department will be able to attract new officers outside of the county and state.

“Laramie is a pretty unique town,” he says, “and I know that there’s not as much diversity as we would like, but we’re going to have to do that work to try and create opportunities and build a little bit more diversity than what we have right now.”

In the office, Appelhans says he’s worked hard to earn the respect of colleagues by putting in the effort and being transparent about reforms.

“I definitely think respect is earned and not necessarily given just based on the title that you have,” he says.

Currently, other than Appelhans himself, there isn’t a single officer of color in the department.

There are times when cultural factors come into play while on duty, he says. It would be ideal for an officer to be able to identify in some way with the person or family in need, he says.

Work needs to be done, he acknowledges, but says he’s committed to making the force better reflect the community.

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.