LARAMIE, Wyo. — Ask Aaron Appelhans if he ever wanted to be a sheriff, and he’ll say no.
“I don’t necessarily represent or identify with everybody in law enforcement,” said 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 one of the most historically white law enforcement institutions in Wyoming, one of the country’s whitest states. He is the first Black sheriff in the 131 years that Wyoming has been a state.
The appointment is symbolic for both Wyoming and the Mountain West, which has been insulated from much of the national reckoning over race and policing. Advocates of overhauling law enforcement say Sheriff Appelhans’s tenure will be a test of whether change can take root in a law enforcement culture that has historically entrenched itself against it.
“The concept of reform that everybody keeps talking about, it’s coming, whether they want it, whether they like it, or not,” said Charles P. Wilson, the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement officers, which represents around 9,000 Black and brown officers across the country.
stepped down from the post amid a lawsuit over the shooting of an unarmed man, Robbie Ramirez, in 2018.
A Colorado native, Sheriff Appelhans carries little of the stiff formality often associated with sheriffs’ offices. He worked as a college-admissions officer for the University of Wyoming in Laramie before eventually spending a decade with the university’s police department, a path he says he never particularly envisioned. He talks regularly with the news media, opting to deal with reporters directly rather than through a spokesperson.
rebuilding public trust following the 2018 shooting of Mr. Ramirez by an Albany County Sheriff’s deputy, Derek Colling. Mr. Ramirez, who was said by his family to suffer from mental illness, was shot once in the chest and twice in the back by Mr. Colling during a traffic stop. A grand jury declined in 2019 to prosecute Mr. Colling for involuntary manslaughter. Mr. Ramirez’s family has filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against Albany County.
The incident brought national attention to the ease with which problematic officers can move unchecked from one department to another. After Mr. Ramirez’s death, it was revealed that Mr. Colling had previously been fired by the Las Vegas Police Department after being involved in two fatal police shootings and, later, violently beating a man who tried to film him.