Albany County in the state of Wyoming has appointed its first Black sheriff in the person of 39-year-old Aaron Appelhans. His appointment comes following a tumultuous period of public rebuke against the department after an unarmed mentally ill man was fatally shot by a deputy during a traffic stop two years ago, The Associated Press reported.
In his new capacity, Appelhans has pledged to mend the broken relationship between the county’s residents and law enforcement after the fatal shooting incident spurred protests and backlash that was further reignited last summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“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.”
In a state that is largely conservative and is majority White, Appelhans told The Associated Press he is well aware of the challenges that may come his way because of the color of his skin.
Following the announcement of his appointment last year, Republican state Rep. Cyrus Western reportedly responded to it by sharing a scene from the Blazing Saddles movie that showed a Black actor asking, “Where the white women at?”. The 1974 movie is about a formerly enslaved man who became the sheriff of an all-white town. Western later apologized.
“It was one of the things I knew that would come with the territory of getting this job,” the 39-year-old said. “I don’t look like everybody else, I don’t think like everybody else. Some people are going to have some problems with that, just based on the way I look. That’s a problem in America.”
Appelhans was appointed by the Albany County Board of Commissioners in December last year. In an interview with WyoFile, Appelhans spoke about the significance of his new role.
“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,” he said.
A Denver native, Appelhans attended the University of Wyoming, graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 2003. He is also a graduate of the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy.
During his time at the University of Wyoming, Appelhans was instrumental in pushing authorities to create a commemorative event – Martin Luther King, Jr. Days of Dialogue at UW – to honor the Civil Rights activist.
“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,” he said. “It started as just a small parade demonstration, then the Office of Multicultural Affairs ended up taking it over.”