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Albany County Sheriff candidates debate diversity and transparency

Albany County Sheriff and Clerk Debate poster
Courtesy of UW Political Science Club
The UW Political Science and Criminal Justice clubs hosted debates for sheriff and county clerk candidates in Albany County on Oct. 20. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor moderated.

One of the biggest races this year in Albany County is the race for sheriff. The incumbent, Sheriff Aaron Appelhans, must defend his seat from challenger Joel Senior.

Both took part in a debate last weekhosted by the University of Wyoming Political Science and Criminal Justice clubs and moderated by Jeff Victor of the Laramie Reporter and Wyoming Public Radio. Here are some highlights of the debate.

The Albany County Sheriff's Office has gotten no shortage of attention the past few years - from federal civil rights lawsuits to local movements for police accountability to a new sheriff with a feature in the New York Times.

Appelhans is that new sheriff and he's running in this election to keep his seat. But it's also his first election. The former UW Police Sergeant was appointed less than two years ago - following the retirement of the former sheriff, Dave O'Malley.

"And since then we've really turned things around in the sheriff's office," Appelhans said. "Everything we've done is to turn that around and really start to focus on de-escalation training, mental health crisis response, substance abuse programs in the jail so that when people get out of jail, they could stay out of jail, and then trying to reduce traffic fatalities."

Joel Senior, the challenger, is a former Laramie Police Investigator. He said the current sheriff has not ushered in the overhaul he claims, and that the sheriff's office is still in need of a strong leader.

"It's easy to just stand up here and claim that you've done things that you haven't," Senior said. "It's easy to say what you're going to do. I've been in law enforcement in our community for over 21 years. I love Albany County, I love our citizens. And that's backed by my track record."

Racism and diversity

Shortly after taking office, Appelhans fired a sergeant accused of racist harassment, who, according to an ongoing civil rights lawsuit, allegedly pushed the office's only Black deputy to quit in 2017. Appelhans is Wyoming's first Black sheriff, and he has placed an emphasis on hiring more diversely.

Senior said his own hiring practices would shoot for colorblindness.

"I believe if you do that, appropriately and fairly, you're going to have a very representative department of your community," he said. "And that will happen naturally, you're not going to have to turn away applicants that are maybe the most qualified in order to specifically target diversity."

But Appelhans said his office doesn't have quotas and doesn't turn away qualified applicants. Senior pushed him about some current targeted ads that specifically advertise open positions to underrepresented populations.

"We advertise so that we can make it welcoming for those underrepresented populations," Appelhans responded. "Traditionally, law enforcement isn't very welcoming for those people. And so we do, we advertise to say, 'Hey, you know, we have an environment where you can come and work where you can come and thrive, and be a part of the community and be a part to serve Albany County.'"

Recent deaths in the county jail

Since Appelhans became sheriff, there have been three deaths in the Albany County Detention Center - two from suicide and one from an overdose. After each of these deaths, Appelhans invited the state's Division of Criminal Investigation to take a look at the incident.

"When you have a critical incident that happens, it's important to have that transparency with the public and make sure that you have an outside agency come and investigate that fully so that there's no conflicts of interest," Appelhans said.

But the three in-custody deaths were only made known to the public recently, during a League of Women Voters forum, as Senior highlighted in his rebuttal:

"The problem I have a hard time with is he used the word transparency in his response," Senior said. "No press releases were ever done on those in-custody deaths. The public was not made aware of them in any way."

Appelhans said there were no press releases out of respect for the families of the deceased. Senior said that wasn't a good excuse.

"You can certainly release those incidents without releasing names," he said. "If individuals are dying in custody at the detention center, it's obvious that the public should have that information."

Laws enforced and unenforced

Senior has said as sheriff, he would refuse to enforce laws he believed were unconstitutional.

"There's a lot of folks within our community right now concerned about federal overreach and actions that our federal government is taking," he said.

So if the federal government decided to confiscate firearms or restrict movement as a precaution against COVID-19, Senior said he would support citizens who decide to flout those specific laws.

But Appelhans said it's up to the courts to decide what's legal and what's not.

"As sheriff, I don't get to pick and choose the laws which we enforce," he said. "It's my job to enforce all the laws equally."

Senior's belief that the sheriff can selectively enforce laws based on their interpretation of the constitution is the core tenet of the so-called Constitutional Sheriffs movement. High-profile members of that movement have close ties with other extremist groups, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Senior said he doesn't support the Constitutional Sheriffs. Appelhans said he turned them down.

"They reached out to me when I was first appointed, and I flat out told them 'No, I'm not going to be part of that group,'" the sheriff said. "Like I said, law enforcement has to remain neutral."

In Albany County, the sheriff candidates will appear on the ballot next to candidates for county commission, county clerk, coroner, assessor and three more uncontested county-wide positions. A debate between the two county clerk candidates took place before the sheriff's debate.

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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