LARAMIE, Wyo. (CBS4) – For the first time since statehood was granted in the 1800s, the State of Wyoming has a Black sheriff in one of its counties. Aaron Appelhans, a native of Westminster, Colo., was sworn in as Wyoming's first Black sheriff in December following the abrupt resignation of his predecessor.
Now, as Sheriff of Albany County, Appelhans said his mission is to use his role to hire more diversity within law enforcement while improving relations with the community.
In his first television interview, Appelhans told CBS4's Dillon Thomas his profession could do better at being more inclusive of all races, ethnicities and genders.
"Traditionally, law enforcement kind of attracts the same folks all the time," Appelhans said, referring to white men. "You don't see a lot of people like me in law enforcement. Not a whole lot of people who think like me, or act like me, in law enforcement. Sometimes you got to be first and blaze those trails."
Out of nearly 600,000 people who call Wyoming home, less than one percent of them are Black. In Albany County, home to the University of Wyoming, 90% of residents are white with a majority of the remaining ten percent identifying as Hispanic.
The racial disparity is even more drastic among law enforcement in the county, according to Appelhans. Appelhans said he only knew of two African American law enforcement officers in the county. He is the only one on the force which he now leads.
Appelhans, a graduate of Standley Lake High School in Colorado, moved to Laramie to pursue a career outside of law enforcement 20 years ago. He said he knew he was moving to a state with predominantly white residents. However, he fell in love with the area and eventually decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. He most recently served as patrol sergeant for a different agency within the county before being selected to replace the outgoing sheriff.
Appelhans admitted he was hesitant to take the job at first. However, after realizing the positive impact he could make with changes, he accepted the position.
"You got into law enforcement and you have that idea of, 'Are you really going to be welcomed there?'" Appelhans recalled.
The sheriff said he was welcomed in to Albany County's department with open arms and has enjoyed working with his staff ever since. He said he didn't know for fact that he was the first Black sheriff in the state's history until researchers at the nearby college notified him.
"I didn't know for sure. But, I definitely knew it was a good chance that I was," Appelhans said.
Appelhans is not the first African American to hold leadership within the law enforcement community in Wyoming. He said some research unveiled another Black man had lead a nearby police department. However, he is the first Black sheriff.
"It's 2020-2021. You would have liked to have someone in there sooner, obviously," Appelhans said. "But, you got to start somewhere."
Appelhans said he was thrilled to know he was selected not because of his race or as an act of symbolism following a year of turbulence with the Black community, but rather for his qualifications and visions for the agency.
He said he wants to be more transparent with the community, establish new or stronger relationships with local coalitions and organizations and hire more diversity. Appelhans said diversity among hires could include different races, faiths, sexes and even passions. Appelhans said he hoped to convince some who had never considered law enforcement as a profession to apply their unique capabilities to the field.
"Diverse personnel, diverse training helps you go and deal with all of those diverse situations," Appelhans said. "I really wanted to make sure when we go out and recruit and hire that we cast a wider net. When I do open up that door, there is a chance that I may be the first one to do it. And then having the responsibility to make sure I hold that door open for anyone following in my footsteps."
The sheriff hoped his appointment is just the cornerstone for Black officers of the future, even if the foundation for others solidified centuries ago.
"That first person just happens to be me. I will start making those footprints and trails. Better late than never," Appelhans said.
Appelhans will serve as sheriff for at least the next two years before he will have to campaign for votes to retain his job at the end of 2022, something he said he never pictured himself doing years ago.
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