LARAMIE, Wyo. – Ask Aaron Appelhans if he ever wanted to be a sheriff, and he will say no.
"I don't necessarily represent or identify with everybody in law enforcement," said 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."
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 Appelhans' 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, chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement officers, which represents around 9,000 Black and brown officers across the country.
Appelhans, 39, is inheriting a troubled department plagued by the kinds of problems that have been documented in sheriff's offices across the region. Allegations of nepotism, selective enforcement and excessive force have swirled around the Albany County sheriff's office for years, critics of the department say.
Even Appelhans' appointment was born of controversy: He was named to serve out the term of David O'Malley, who stepped down from the post amid a lawsuit over the shooting of an unarmed man, Robbie Ramirez, in 2018.
A Colorado native, Appelhans carries little of the stiff formality often associated with sheriff's 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.
Appelhans' approach is a stark departure for a Wyoming sheriff, a storied, sometimes archaic institution central to the lore of a disappearing American West. Sheriff's offices are historically white, inaccessible to the public and politically powerful; as small a role as sheriff's offices typically have in urban areas with large city police departments, they loom much larger in more rural states like Wyoming and Montana and in parts of the Midwest, and operate with comparatively little public oversight.
"They're the top dog in the counties," said Chris Walsh, executive director of the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which certifies law enforcement personnel in the state.
In such sparsely populated territory, small towns rarely can afford to set up their own police departments, so most law enforcement duties fall to county sheriffs. In Wyoming, sheriffs are elected to four-year terms with no limits; many hold office for decades.
"The sheriff, by nature, has far less oversight," said Karlee Provenza, a Democrat in the state House of Representatives who is also the executive director of Albany County for Proper Policing, an advocacy organization. "The process is meant to put that oversight into a ballot box. And that is slow, it's unreliable, and it's not real accountability."
Nestled in the high desert between the Front Range foothills and Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Laramie is a liberal anomaly in the deeply conservative Wyoming ranchlands, a phenomenon bolstered by a robust population of college students at the University of Wyoming. Outside Laramie, sagebrush and cattle make up much of the rest of Albany County.
One of Appelhans' challenges will be rebuilding public trust after the 2018 shooting of Ramirez by Albany County sheriff's deputy Derek Colling. Ramirez, who was said by his family to suffer from mental illness, was shot once in the chest and twice in the back by Colling during a traffic stop. A grand jury declined in 2019 to prosecute Colling for involuntary manslaughter. 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 Ramirez's death, it was revealed that 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.
Ramirez's name was sometimes invoked by demonstrators both in Laramie and elsewhere in the state over the summer, when hundreds of thousands of people across the country marched against police brutality.
Appelhans did not want to talk about the incident or the lawsuit. But he acknowledged that the department's history was one of the things that had made him wary as he considered whether to take on the job of sheriff.
"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," said Linda Devine, a defense lawyer in Laramie who is a proponent of overhauling criminal justice. "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."
O'Malley's midterm departure means Appelhans will not come up for election until 2022.
In the meantime, he plans to embark on an aggressive approach to bringing cultural change in the sheriff's office. He is leading an effort to coordinate police response with resources like shelters, mental health professionals and support groups. Armed police responses, he said, can often escalate into situations that could be better handled with counselors or nonlethal force.
And, he said, he intends to diversify the 42-deputy sheriff's office, where he said he is the only Black officer. Five deputies are women.
Appelhans said he has unilateral authority over hiring decisions at the department and is actively seeking applicants, adding that he intends to recruit more Black, Latino and female officers.
"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," he said. "They just do a terrible job."
Sheriff's offices in Wyoming have a long history of racial bias, advocates say. The issue confronted Appelhans early in his tenure: On his second day in office, a Wyoming state representative, Cyrus Western, tweeted a racist gif from the movie "Blazing Saddles" in reference to Appelhans' appointment.
"I didn't want to say I knew it was coming, but it didn't surprise me when it came," Appelhans said of the incident. "It isn't something that I haven't dealt with throughout my entire life. Unfortunately it's something that I'm used to."
Western later apologized for the tweet, insisting he had not meant it as a disparagement of the state's first Black sheriff.