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Wyoming’s first-ever Black sheriff proves change is possible, even in a small department

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Posted at 2:19 PM, Feb 25, 2022

If Sheriff Aaron Appelhans has one message, it’s that change can happen anywhere.

Born in a big city, Appelhans never thought he’d go into law enforcement, but life has a way of changing directions when a local chief approached him about an officer job.

"Truth be told, I told him, I was like, 'I'm not a big fan of law enforcement. That's not something I think I really want to do,'" he laughed.

He ended up becoming something he loved. Ten years later, a new opportunity knocked—to become the Albany County Sheriff, and in turn, become Wyoming’s first-ever Black sheriff.

"I was like, well, there's an opportunity, you know, it's and I knew that the agency had a whole host of issues, some of which that I figured I could definitely deal with that," he said.

Although he’s had the position for about a year, he’s already made changes to the department.

"When you work within the system, you can see the things that it does well, you can see its flaws. You can see its loopholes, you can see all of its cracks," he said.

His main goal is to fix the culture. In a rural town in the middle of the country, he made the department more transparent in dealing with the public. He started making the path to drug and alcohol rehab for repeat offenders clearer and he focused on recruitment, specifically who he was recruiting.

"Law enforcement traditionally has a really terrible job in terms of recruitment. They recruit the same type of people over and over and over again. And it creates these situations you see across the country where maybe your police force doesn't necessarily represent the community that you serve," said Appelhans.

In less than a year, he’s filled 19 deputy positions with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. Some of the people on the force haven’t liked the changes and left. Appelhans has even fired someone for past racist behavior, but he says all these are necessary steps toward cultural change.

"We're in the people business and we're not into excluding people, so we're going to be as inclusive as we possibly can."

He’s looking to hire three more people in the coming months, continuing to build his vision of a more inclusive, community-focused force.

As his story spreads of what he’s able to do in a small town, he wants to make it clear: change can happen in the most unlikely places, and anyone interesting in making that change shouldn’t be afraid to take that initial step.

"Sometimes you gotta be the first so that second, third and fourth can thrive as well," he said. "So, take that chance. Got to take that opportunity when it comes in and then go create that opportunity for yourself."