CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) â€” Wyomingâ€™s first Black sheriff last year fired a high-ranking white deputy who is accused of tormenting a Black subordinate for years with racist name-calling that led him to quit, a new federal lawsuit reveals.
Albany County Patrol Sgt. Christian Handley once drove past and yelled a profanity and the N-word at Cpl. Jamin Johnson while Johnson and his wife and children were walking out of their home, according to one example of racism alleged in the discrimination lawsuit filed last week.
â€œMr. Handley later apologized for having not realized that Mr. Johnsonâ€™s family was present, as if his vile racism was otherwise acceptable,â€ the lawsuit says.
Johnson is suing Handley, seeking a jury trial if necessary and damages for the years of racism that he says made him quit in 2017.
The allegations put a new spotlight on the sheriffâ€™s office in Laramie, the Albany County seat known for the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998, a crime that drew unprecedented attention to LGBTQ rights and hate crimes. The racism allegations come after Sheriff Aaron Appelhansâ€™ appointment as Wyomingâ€™s first Black sheriff in the wake of an outcry in Laramie over a deputyâ€™s 2018 shooting of an unarmed man who had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Handley used racial slurs to refer not only to Johnson but to Black citizens he came in contact with on the job, including four University of Wyoming students who were in a vehicle he once pulled over, according to Johnsonâ€™s lawsuit against Handley, filed Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. The suit didnâ€™t provide the reason for the stop.
Handley declined to comment when reached by phone and asked about the lawsuit Monday. Appelhans did not immediately respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.
Besides using racial epithets, Handleyâ€™s years of taunts against Johnson included telling him that being intimate with a Black woman would be degrading, according to the lawsuit.
An internal review two months after Appelhans took office found that despite Handleyâ€™s â€œwidespread and well-knownâ€ racism, Handley was emboldened by getting preferential treatment for promotions ahead of the more-experienced Johnson, the lawsuit alleges.
Appelhans fired Handley after the investigation in early 2021, according to the lawsuit.
Appelhansâ€™ predecessor from the time of the allegations, former Sheriff Dave Oâ€™Malley also declined to comment Monday. The lawsuit mentions Oâ€™Malley but does not accuse him of wrongdoing.
Because Oâ€™Malley was a Democrat, his 2020 retirement allowed local Democratic officials to nominate Appelhans and two other finalists to complete his elected term, which ends in early 2023.
Handley began subjecting Johnson to â€œovert and abhorrent racismâ€ when they were both deputies from 2011 to 2014 and Johnson was the departmentâ€™s only Black officer, the lawsuit alleges.
Handley nonetheless climbed the ranks in the sheriffâ€™s office, becoming part of the departmentâ€™s â€œold boysâ€™ clubâ€ and a â€œtrusted voiceâ€ in personnel decisions, the lawsuit claims.
Soon after being promoted to patrol sergeant, Handley wrote a performance review accusing Johnson of engaging in several forms of misconduct over the previous year, which meant that Handley was taking notes on Johnson and â€œdecided to unleash pent-up racismâ€ after becoming his boss, according to the lawsuit.
Handley also wrote â€œseveral other sham disciplinary actionsâ€ against Johnson, â€œall designed to force his resignation,â€ alleges the lawsuit.
The lawsuit calls Handleyâ€™s claims â€œutterly unsubstantiated,â€ but says he nonetheless persuaded Oâ€™Malley to issue an ultimatum to Johnson: Either accept a suspension and demotion to patrol deputy, or leave the sheriffâ€™s office. Johnson soon resigned.
Appelhansâ€™ appointment as Wyomingâ€™s first Black sheriff in late 2020 came two years after Cpl. Derek Colling killed an unarmed man after a traffic stop. A grand jury found Colling didnâ€™t commit involuntary manslaughter, though he resigned last year. A wrongful death lawsuit against the county in that case is still pending.
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