After the shooting, unrest Wyoming gets its first black sheriff

LARAMIE, Wyo (AP) – As a student at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, Aaron Appelhans used to look at the pictures from previous exam courses hanging on the wall.

“I mostly have to see that there are not many people who looked like me here,” he reminded me of the mostly white faces.

A decade later, Appelhans was named Wyoming’s first black sheriff, a position he took months after rage over racist police control that shook American cities. His lawn includes one of Wyoming’s last strongholds, but the state is overwhelmingly conservative and white, and he is already facing a racist remark from a lawmaker.

That did not surprise him. Wyoming has made progress but is still “very racist,” said Stephen Latham, president of the NAACP state.

Like other parts of the country battling police violence, a deputy’s deadly shooting of an unarmed, mentally ill man played an important role in Appelhans’ appointment as Albany County sheriff. The death of 39-year-old Robbie Ramirez during a traffic jam two years ago provoked violent setbacks, which were transferred to last summer’s protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

The Albany County Proper Policing group formed after the shooting and pushed for Appelhans to take over when his predecessor, Dave O’Malley, retired.

“Let’s take this anger and pain and make it progress in our society,” said Democratic State Representative Karlee Provenza, the group’s chief executive.

Appelhans, 39, grew up near Denver and experienced racism and had relatives in the criminal justice system. He understands both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement, he recently told The Associated Press.

“I am one of those people who feels that law enforcement really needs to take a good look at what we do,” Appelhans said. “Are we serving our community?”

Appelhans, a former police sergeant at the University of Wyoming, became the top law enforcement officer for a county more than three times the size of Rhode Island in December, but still has only 650 African Americans out of 39,000 people.

The county seat is Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming and a liberal city still associated with the assassination of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Ramirez’s murder 20 years later attracted less attention but fresh soul-searching.

A grand jury refused to charge sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling for shooting Ramirez. Colling, who grew up in Laramie and knew Ramirez from school, had killed two people as a police officer in Las Vegas before he was fired there.

A lawsuit accuses Colling of killing Ramirez unnecessarily. It is alleged that O’Malley, the former sheriff, overlooked Collings’ “out of control temperament” and hired him in part because his father was a friend.

Appelhans refused to talk about Colling or the shooting, citing the department’s policy for not commenting on the pending lawsuit.

However, he hopes that funding for funding and working with local groups means fewer confrontations.

“We have ‘officers’ as a nickname,” Appelhans said. “We are not ‘officers’. I’m listed, just like all the other deputies here are listed as peace officers. We are here to keep the peace. And then it really is one of the big changes I’ve wanted to have law enforcement focus on. ”

His work with the university force to try to reduce crimes such as sexual assault was encouraging, said Provenza, the legislature that helped local Democrats cultivate sheriff’s candidates.

“There are many opportunities for the sheriff’s office to grow and shape change and evolve into something that this community will feel more secure working with,” Provenza said.

Appelhan’s leadership training and experience as a detective and crime prevention point to “likely success” as a sheriff, said Wyoming Police Chief Mike Samp.

O’Malley, however, said Democrats did not put forward anyone qualified for sheriff. Reaching Florida, where he now lives, O’Malley said, “I think he’s going over his head, but you know it’s still to be seen.”

Because O’Malley was a Democrat, the Albany County Democratic Party recommended three sheriff finalists to the county commission, but not O’Malley’s top election, a deputy sheriff.

O’Malley declined to comment on Ramirez’s shooting or the trial. Colling did not return a message and his attorney declined to comment.

Ramirez’s relatives and lawyers did not return messages seeking comment on Appelhans’ appointment.

Appelhans said he was not sure he would be sheriff because he will have to fight next year to keep the job. The rare chance of leading a law enforcement agency and making reforms changed, he said.

In December, Republican Attorney General Cyrus Western responded to the news of Appelhans’ appointment by posting a clip online showing a black character from the movie “Blazing Saddles” asking, “Where are the white women?” In the film, a former slave acts as sheriff of an all-white city.

Western apologized publicly and in a call to Appelhans.

“It was one of the things I knew that would come with the area of ​​getting this job,” Appelhans said. “I do not look like everyone else, I do not think like everyone else. Some people will have some issues with it, just based on the way I look. That’s a problem in America. ”

Wyoming’s capital and largest city, Cheyenne, got its first black police chief, James “Jim” Byrd, in 1966. But given colored people for top law enforcement jobs, the exception remains rather than standard practice, Latham told the Wyoming NAACP.

“You have to bring them to mind, and then they start thinking about it. But today and in time, it should not be something that is behind, ”Latham said.

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