Almost immediately after taking office as the first Black sheriff in the state of Wyoming, Aaron Appelhans called for an internal review of deputies within the department. The probe discovered, in two months, that one of the white deputies in the department used his power and rank to negatively impact a Black colleague, causing him to resign from the force.
It also found that many people considered the deputy in question to be a “well-known” racist.
According to CBS News, Albany County Patrol Sergeant Christian Handley, a white man, has been harassing Corporal Jamin Johnson, a Black man, for years. Johnson is now using the investigation conducted by the office of Sheriff Appelhans as the foundation of his new federal lawsuit against Handley.
It claims Handley, “relentlessly demeaned Mr. Johnson with racial slurs and innuendos, even once in front of Mr. Johnson’s wife and children.” Handley would later apologize, stating that he did not know the family was there.
Filed on Tuesday, Jan. 18, in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the lawsuit reveals the torment was so vicious it led Johnson, after a decade of service, to quit in 2017.
It read that Handley exhibited degrees of “racism, bigotry, and discrimination in the workplace (that) almost defies belief.”
Johnson is seeking compensation for the years he was abused by Handley on and off the job and is open to a trial by jury.
Handley started demonstrating “overt and abhorrent racism” when the two were deputies from 2011 to 2014, and Johnson was the only Black officer in the department, the filing alleges.
An example of this was when he told Johnson that sex with a Black woman would be degrading. The lawsuit reads, “Mr. Handley asked whether Mr. Johnson had ever had sex with a Black woman. Taken aback, Mr. Johnson said nothing. Mr. Handley followed up: ‘Because that would be nasty. That is like having sex with a dog.’”
Despite his alleged bigotry, Handley rose in ranks with the sheriff’s office and became a “trusted voice” in the personnel decisions. As a member of what the lawsuit calls the “old boys’ club,” he was promoted to a patrol sergeant, a position more superior than Johnson.
As his superior, Johnson was subjugated to having several of his job performance reviews done by Handley — a man who once drove by his house and shouted profanity and the N-word at Johnson while he, his wife, and children were leaving out of their home. In his review, Handley allegedly lied and accused Johnson of engaging in forms of misconduct during that year.
The document says that Handley “unleashed pent-up racism” and did “several other sham disciplinary actions” against Johnson “designed to force his resignation.”
The sergeant was successful.
Despite Johnson’s lawsuit alleging that the claims were “utterly unsubstantiated,” the then sheriff, Dave O’Malley took Handley’s side and enacted disciplinary action on Johnson, a deputy who had served his office from 2007-2017.
He told him that he could either accept a suspension, accept a demotion to patrol deputy, or leave the sheriff’s office. Johnson eventually left his job on Aug. 2, 2017, the lawsuit says, adding that staying with the department “would have meant enduring more racism, more bigotry and more discrimination, none of which was tolerable.”
The lawsuit noted examples of Handley’s racist behavior extended past his engagement with Johnson, but to other Blacks, regardless of age, that he encountered while on duty.
It detailed another inappropriate example of his bigotry: “Mr. Johnson once stopped several Black people in a vehicle. Mr. Handley arrived at the stop as the supervising officer only to ask, ‘What did these [N-words] do?’ Comments like these were routine.”
The lawsuit states that Handley repeatedly used racial slurs like the N-word or “jigaboo” to describe Black people.
Allegations presented in the claim happened three years before Appelhans became the sheriff in late 2020.
The history-making sheriff said that he did not know about Handley’s background until after he took office. Since then, notwithstanding the investigation about racial bigotry in his office, he has implemented systems of change in how things are done on his watch.
In 2021, he moved internal investigations out of his office and secured it over in the county human resources office. As the executive in his office, he personally signs off on all hires, promotions, and dismissals. He also fired Handley.
“It’s just disappointing to learn how long it had been going on prior to my arrival,” he said.
Appelhans stated about the discoveries and his changes, “I’ll always continue to make sure that our department is not only welcoming to those who want to work in our department but welcoming to those in our community, as well.”
The lawsuit quotes the findings of the investigation that got Handley terminated as saying, “[The] vile and unforgivable racism carried out by Mr. Handley that ultimately forced Mr. Johnson out of his dream job.”
Johnson is seeking unspecified damages, including loss of wages and benefits, emotional distress, and punitive damages with his lawsuit. Handley has 60 days from Jan. 18 to file a reply to the lawsuit. Handley is the only entity named in the suit.
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