Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans still has some work to do before his office is set up. The walls are mostly empty as stacks of framed pictures sit on shelves and the floor, paperwork piled high obscures the desktop. Behind it all sits the new sheriff, making sense of the opportunity he’s seized.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind for the first week,” Appelhans said with a laugh. “But it’s been overwhelmingly positive.”
The Albany County Board of Commissioners appointed Appelhans on Dec. 11. He had been one of three candidates put forth by the local Democratic Party to replace former Sheriff Dave O’Malley. The appointment process was complicated and fraught, but when it was over, Wyoming had its first Black sheriff.
While African Americans have served in most county positions, Appelhans is the first Black man to serve as sheriff, University of Wyoming Professor Emeritus Phil Roberts told WyoFile in an email.
The historic significance of his appointment is not lost on Appelhans. Not only does it take Wyoming closer to living up to its moniker, “The Equality State,” he said, but it gives young people from diverse backgrounds something to aspire to.
“I get to be an example now for other people that look like me or come from similar backgrounds or come from underrepresented populations, that they can get into law enforcement and they can move their way up and they can effect change in their communities,” Appelhans said.
But the new sheriff comes into office in troubled times. The tenure of his predecessor ended in turmoil with two years of public scrutiny that continues to plague the office after a deputy-involved shooting resulted in the death of a mentally ill man in November 2018.
A national conversation around police reform is still driving activists to demand change, including in Laramie. Not everyone in Albany County’s Black community is rejoicing in Appelhans’s appointment, as some wait to see what policies he implements.
From where Appelhans sits, there’s a lot of work to be done.
When opportunity knocks
Appelhans, 39, grew up in Denver. Music, volunteering and athletics, especially basketball, were a part of his childhood. It was a “multi-religious” upbringing, he said, where academic success was emphasized above most other matters.
Before graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2003 with a civil engineering degree, Appelhans was a part of the student organization for Black leaders that led early efforts to establish what is today known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Days of Dialogue at UW.
“For me, not being from the state, I didn’t realize the state didn’t celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday — it’s Wyoming Equality Day here,” Appelhans said. “It started as just a small parade demonstration, then the Office of Multicultural Affairs ended up taking it over.”
Appelhans said he didn’t necessarily plan to get involved with the student organization — “it just happened.”
“I like solving problems,” Appelhans said. “I like helping people out and I like working with people. So it’s just one of those things where I had that opportunity. When I do, I usually take it.”
That attitude of wanting to help people was what drove him to become a UW police officer after working at the university’s admissions office, he said. The police chief at the time told Appelhans he might have a knack for law enforcement. Around the same time, Appelhans said he was interested in pursuing a career where he was out in the world helping people instead of behind a desk. The UWPD provided that opportunity.
In his 10 years with UWPD, Appelhans served as a crime prevention officer, a detective and finally as a sergeant supervising daily patrols. When the sheriff’s position opened, it presented another chance to help people in the community, Appelhans said.
“Here’s an opportunity where I could run an agency to help people in more of a capacity than what I was already doing,” he said.
Appelhans had reservations. Among those was the political climate surrounding the appointment.
November 2018 saw segments of the Albany County community outraged after the shooting death of Laramie man Robbie Ramirez by then-Deputy Derek Colling. The deputy’s spotty past fueled the public outcry.
Matters were further complicated when the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests across the world, including in Laramie. Marchers chanted “Fire Derek Colling” for weeks.
The controversy made Appelhans, who doesn’t consider himself a typical politician, hesitant.
“I knew that whoever was going to get that position was going to have to have to address all of those issues and find solutions to them,” Appelhans said.
His vision of change
In his letter to the Albany County commissioners expressing his interest in the position, Appelhans wrote, “the public view and trust of the Albany County Sheriff Office is not what it once was.” High profile incidents managed by the office, he wrote, coupled with a national conversation about the use of force, created an atmosphere of wariness.
Being proactively transparent is a priority in earning back that trust, Appelhans said. He also wants to reach out to community resources about multifaceted responses that could break from traditional law enforcement operations, he said.
“Some calls don’t necessarily warrant a law enforcement response or a law enforcement resolution,” Appelhans said. “So one of the goals that I have with this organization is to get where …we have situations that don’t need a law enforcement decision.”
Appelhans also plans to focus on recruitment and retention, he said, with an eye on diversifying the sheriff’s office staff. That means looking to put more women and minorities in the department, Appelhans said.
“We’re going to try to cast a much wider net,” he said.
The Albany County Democrats have stood proudly behind their pick of Appelhans for sheriff. Chairwoman Carrie Murthy said the historic nature of choosing a Black person was not really part of the consideration, but it was a positive aspect of the outcome.
“That’s just a bonus to move our state toward better representation, but it wasn’t something that went into the screening or selection thought process,” Murthy said.
Recently-elected Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), who emerged as a vocal progressive presence in discussions about police violence after Ramirez’s death, said Appelhans’s identity brings something to the table others could not.
“We know that people who are most often policed are people of color, people who come from marginalized communities, so having a sheriff that in some way can relate to that, I think, will guide him in terms of what’s important for his office,” Provenza said. “I certainly hope it guides him in training, policies and procedures.”
Frederick Douglass Dixon, a UW professor and director of the university’s Black Studies Center, said the racially troubling roots of policing in the U.S. makes it significant to have a Black person in a position of power in law enforcement in Albany County. However, as a self-described “cynic by trade,” he’s not yet celebrating the appointment, he said.
“The question is: will [Black people in positions of power] be able to make genuine change that is called for and demanded, or is the system so strict, so rigid that it doesn’t matter?” Dixon said.
Systemic racism exists in the U.S. and in its criminal justice system, Appelhans said. But when it comes to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, Appelhans stands firm that it is not a problem.
“In terms of my department specifically, there’s nothing,” he said. “Those deputies are not targeting specific individuals based on race or ethnicity or anything along those lines.”
Dixon said that view is “absolutely an illusion.”
“There’s systemic racism everywhere, including the police department, the University of Wyoming, politics … folks’ day-to-day really are driven by the vestiges of systemic racism,” Dixon said. “So for him to say that, I think, was very inaccurate. And I can’t say the motives that would give a person the right to say that or to use that as an answer.”
Timberly Vogel, one of the community organizers with the Laramie Human Rights Network, the driving force behind the town’s summer demonstrations against racism and police violence, also said she is waiting. She wants to see what policies Appelhans puts forward before she forms an opinion on him as sheriff, she said.
“I think he needs to address the racial tension and the disproportionate amount of distrust of law enforcement that happens within communities of color, and more so indigenous communities in Wyoming,” Vogel said. “You have to address those and you have to act and serve those people that have been disproportionately criminalized and deemed as aggressors by this institution that now you’re the leading the face of. So it’s meaningful [to have a Black sheriff], but it all depends on what he does.”
Appelhans said he wants to hear from all his constituents, regardless of their perspectives. In the meantime, he’s not taking policy positions beyond what he outlined coming into office and emphasizes that what he can do has certain limitations.
“Whether they have ideas that are considered radical on either end of the spectrum, you know I’m always going to listen,” Appelhans said. “What we can do and what we can’t do is just going to be dictated a little bit by the constraints of the law, and my conversations will always be geared to what’s the best for our community. I’m not sheriff of the nation, I’m not sheriff of the state of Wyoming. I am sheriff of Albany County.”
A fraught process
O’Malley submitted notice in August he intended to retire on Jan. 2. Initially, the Albany County Democrats were under the impression they had until that date to fill the vacancy, which Democratic state committeeman Ken Chestek said was ample time.
But the Albany County Commission on Sept. 16 sent a letter notifying the Democratic Party it had 15 days to fill the vacancy. Three candidates would have to be put forward for the commissioners to select from by Sept. 30.
What followed was a bout of legal sparring over state statute that saw the Democratic Party filing suit to contest the commission’s guidelines while also scrambling to find candidates.
Before the 15 days expired, the district court granted a temporary restraining order to the Democrats, placing a hold on the process.
The Democrats continued the search while the litigation was pending, but the process was disrupted when O’Malley announced he would move his retirement date up to Nov. 30.
“At that point, the case became moot,” Chestek said.
With O’Malley gone and the office vacant, the 15-day period statutorily required to fill the position began. While Democrats were surprised by O’Malley’s announcement, they felt confident about their pool of candidates.
Murthy said involving the public in the process of selecting candidates for sheriff was a priority.
“We specifically solicited public input throughout the entire process, all of the input and comments we received were really important to us,” she said.
Transparency would have been a priority regardless of the context, Murthy said, but the unrest over policing and issues of race over the summer underscored the Democratic Party’s considerations.
“Even without that, [transparency is] just what we believe,” Murthy said. “But it certainly drove home the importance of it.”
Vogel said she and others actively reached out to the selection committee so their positions could be heard, making it clear they saw an opportunity to implement the types of reforms they had been advocating. However, those calls for change, Vogel said, fell on deaf ears. And the transparency promised by the Democrats, she said, was lacking from the start.
She pointed to the nomination of selection committee member Gary Wilken as the third candidate as an unfortunate result “that disintegrates the whole thing.”
“The public had no idea that that was even a possibility, and then the person that you do put forward is an ex-cop who was a part of selecting all of the other candidates,” Vogel said. “You can say, ‘Yeah we’re trying to be as transparent as possible,’ and obviously it’s a good intention, but it was not producing any sort of transparency.”
The selection committee knew the decision to nominate Wilken would come as a surprise, Murthy said. But she stands by the decision as the best that could be made at the time given the circumstances.
Murthy said the Democrats haven’t walked away from difficult conversations regarding the process of appointing a new sheriff. And looking to the future, she’s confident about coalition-building with the community’s progressives.
“I think we’ve grown as a party, and I certainly hope the community feels that we’ve been listening every step of the way,” Murthy said. “I definitely feel very optimistic about coalition building and continuing to grow as a party.”
While Vogel is fine with talking with Democrats going forward, she said, the Laramie Human Rights Network won’t be counting on building bridges to accomplish its goals.
As for Appelhans, he plans on implementing his stated policy goals and listening to his community. His tenure got unwanted attention when Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan) tweeted a reply to an article about Appelhans’s appointment that included a graphic with racist connotations. Western deleted the tweet and called the sheriff to apologize.
Vogel said the incident indicates systemic racism is pervasive in Wyoming.
“I hope it changes his perspective of how he has to work things,” she said.
Appelhans said the incident with Western did not affect how he will approach his job or his perspective on racism in Wyoming.
“The incident doesn’t have anything to do with the goals I had when I came into office or moving forward,” he said.
Whatever healing is needed in his community “is going to come with action,” Appelhans said.
“I know that maybe sounds cliche, but it is one of those things where you’ve got to go out and make connections with people, especially if they have grievances or don’t like the way that you’re doing business,” he said. “If you just let that go, it’s not going to get any better.”