Former deputy sues fired patrol sergeant, alleging racist slurs, innuendos
Jamin Johnson, formerly a corporal with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, alleges that fired Patrol Sergeant Christian Handley repeatedly demeaned Johnson and other Black Laramie residents.
Jamin Johnson, a former corporal with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, is suing another former member of the sheriff’s office in federal court. Johnson, who is Black, alleges that a “years-long racist tirade” forced him to resign.
In the suit filed Tuesday, Johnson alleges that Christian Handley, then a patrol sergeant with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, “relentlessly demeaned Mr. Johnson with racial slurs and innuendos, even once in front of Mr. Johnson’s wife and children.”
“The total of Mr. Handley’s racism, bigotry, and discrimination in the workplace almost defies belief,” the lawsuit alleges. “Ultimately, towards the end of 2016, Mr. Handley was promoted to Patrol Sergeant and immediately orchestrated a sham disciplinary process to force Mr. Johnson out of the ACSO because of his race.”
Johnson left the sheriff’s office in 2017. He joined the Albany County School District Board of Trustees in 2019 and served until this year. He announced his resignation from the board this month, stating that his family was pursuing opportunities outside Wyoming.
The lawsuit describes an internal investigation launched last February by Sheriff Aaron Appelhans almost immediately after he took office. The investigation focused on Handley’s conduct and involved an interview between the office’s human resources director and Johnson.
Sheriff Appelhans said he fired Handley in March as a result of the investigation.
“The current sheriff’s office right now, under my administration, doesn’t condone any of that behavior,” he said. “We handle it swiftly, as we’ve done with Christian Handley.”
Johnson’s suit is aimed squarely at Handley as an individual and not the sheriff’s office.
The suit cites 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a federal law which allows civil cases to be brought against a government agent for the “deprivation of rights.”
Johnson is seeking “such damages as may be proven at trial, including but not limited to lost income and benefits; lost employment opportunities; psychological, emotional, and mental anguish; distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and degradation; pain and suffering; and Plaintiff Johnson’s attorneys’ fees in bringing this action.”
‘Overt and abhorrent racism’
The suit details Johnson’s history with the sheriff’s office. The lifelong Albany County resident graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2006 and joined the Albany County Sheriff’s Office the following year. Johnson followed after his father, who was a University of Wyoming Police Officer.
“Law enforcement was Mr. Johnson’s dream job,” the suit states.
Johnson was hired as a detention deputy and promoted to patrol deputy four years later. Handley was hired around this time — directly into the patrol deputy position, the suit states.
“This disparity was emblematic of the favoritism and favor that Mr. Handley would seek and frequently obtain in the coming years, despite the heinous conduct described herein,” the lawsuit alleges. “Johnson and Handley worked together as Patrol Deputies from 2011 to 2014, when Mr. Handley began to engage in overt and abhorrent racism against Mr. Johnson, the only Black officer at the ACSO.”
The suit alleges that Handley started “routinely referring to Mr. Johnson as a ‘n*****’ and a ‘j******,’” adding that Handley allegedly used the same terms for Black people throughout the community, including arrestees.
“In 2014, Mr. Handley was promoted to Corporal and became Mr. Johnson’s supervisor,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Handley’s racism became even more blatant.”
The suit describes a traffic stop initiated by Johnson. There were several Black people in the vehicle.
“Mr. Handley arrived at the stop as the supervising officer only to ask, ‘What did these n*****s do?’” the lawsuit states. “Comments like these were routine.”
Johnson was promoted to corporal six months after Handley’s promotion. In 2016, Handley was promoted again, becoming Johnson’s supervisor once more. As patrol sergeant, “Mr. Handley’s racism grew even more appalling,” the lawsuit alleges.
“In June 2017, Messrs. Handley and Johnson walked into a common area at the ACSO, and 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.’”
In another instance, the lawsuit alleges, Handley referred to four Black university students who had been arrested the previous night with more racial slurs.
“Around that same time, Mr. Johnson was walking out of his home with his wife and children when Mr. Handley drove by and yelled: ‘mother fucking n*****!’ Mr. Handley later apologized for having not realized that Mr. Johnson’s family was present, as if his vile racism was otherwise acceptable,” the lawsuit alleges. “Despite all of this, Mr. Handley had been climbing the ranks, had earned entrance into the ACSO’s ‘old boys’ club,’ and became a trusted voice in ACSO’s personnel decisions.”
“Sham disciplinary process”
The lawsuit alleges that Handley launched a “sham disciplinary process” after becoming Johnson’s superior — and that this process forced Johnson to resign from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
“Prior to Mr. Handley’s promotion to Patrol Sergeant, no ACSO supervisor had ever written up Mr. Johnson for any violation of policy that challenged his integrity or commitment to the community,” the lawsuit states. “It is without question that Mr. Johnson was a dedicated and qualified officer. But once Mr. Handley became Patrol Sergeant, the hostile work environment that had included a steady barrage of dehumanizing comments and race-based harassment transformed into a sham disciplinary process designed to target Mr. Johnson and force him out of the ACSO.”
The lawsuit alleges that just weeks after his promotion, Handley wrote a performance evaluation accusing Johnson of various forms of misconduct.
“ACSO policy permitted Mr. Johnson to submit a written rebuttal to the disciplinary charges brought by Mr. Handley,” the lawsuit states. “But when Mr. Johnson consulted a colleague in drafting his rebuttal, Mr. Handley disciplined Mr. Johnson for insubordination and dissension.”
The lawsuit states this should not have resulted in disciplinary action.
“It became clear to Mr. Johnson that he was being targeted by Mr. Handley on the basis of race,” the lawsuit alleges. “Indeed, Mr. Handley thereafter wrote several other sham disciplinary actions against Mr. Johnson in rapid succession, all designed to force his resignation. Mr. Handley’s write-ups accused Mr. Johnson of lying, creating elaborate stories to cover up his mistakes, and threatening his coworkers, to name just a few of the apparent ‘issues’ in Mr. Johnson’s behavior.”
The lawsuits states Johnson had never been accused of such things before.
“Mr. Johnson was never given an opportunity to rebut Mr. Handley’s utterly unsubstantiated allegations,” the suit alleges. “Nevertheless, based on his sham disciplinary actions, Mr. Handley persuaded Sheriff (Dave) O’Malley to issue an ultimatum to Mr. Johnson: he could accept a suspension and demotion to Patrol Deputy or leave the ACSO.”
But returning to the patrol deputy position would leave Johnson under Handley’s supervision, the lawsuit states.
“Because working under those circumstances would have been intolerable, Mr. Johnson was compelled to resign on or around August 2, 2017,” the lawsuit states.
New sheriff in town
In 2018, then-Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling shot and killed Robbie Ramirez, an unarmed man, following a traffic stop. Charges were never brought against Colling, but Sheriff O’Malley — who defended him — faced significant criticism and backlash from the community.
In late 2020, O’Malley resigned. Aaron Appelhans was selected as his replacement by the Albany County Commission. Appelhans is Wyoming’s first Black sheriff.
“In February of 2021, four years after Mr. Johnson’s termination, Sheriff Appelhans, a Black man, decided just after his appointment that the ACSO ought to look into Mr. Handley’s conduct,” the lawsuit states.
This investigation led ACSO Human Resource Director Christina Lewis to reach out to Johnson and interview him about his experience working with Handley.
“During the meeting, Mr. Johnson told Ms. Lewis of Mr. Handley’s egregious acts, and Ms. Lewis admitted that Mr. Handley’s racism was widespread and well-known, and that Mr. Handley had been emboldened to carry out this behavior having received preferential treatment as he climbed the ranks (e.g. he received written exams and interview questions in advance of the interview process for Corporal and Patrol Sergeant),” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit further alleges that the investigative file and related documents would substantiate “the vile and unforgivable racism carried out by Mr. Handley that ultimately forced Mr. Johnson out of his dream job … ”
“Upon information and belief, the ACSO terminated Mr. Handley following the investigation,” the lawsuit states.
Appelhans confirmed that Handley was fired in March as a result of the internal investigation.
“We had multiple offenses that gave us cause for termination,” he said. “Some of them have been outlined in that lawsuit, for discrimination on many levels. He also received a couple citations from the United States Forest Service and Wyoming Game and Fish, among other policy violations we had here at the office.”
Appelhans said the sheriff’s office has policies on the books regarding workplace harassment and discrimination. It’s also subject to the county’s equal opportunity employment rules and federal labor laws.
Appelhans would not say if those policies went unenforced under his predecessor.
“What I can tell you is that they’re definitely being enforced since I took over,” Appelhans said. “Some of the investigation showed that they may not have been enforced, and there were lapses. Some of the corrective action that probably should have been taken was not being taken prior to my arrival.”
In 2020, a separate civil rights suit was brought against the Albany County Sheriff’s Office related to Handley’s conduct as a patrol sergeant. He and Deputy Aaron Gallegos pushed a University of Wyoming student to recant a sexual assault allegation in 2017. Handley appears to not understand consent in a recording of the interview obtained by Wyoming Public Media.
Handley was decertified by the Wyoming Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission in 2021 for engaging in “harassment and discriminatory behavior.”
Johnson’s lawsuit brings two claims for relief, one related to discrimination on the basis of race and the other related to equal protection.
The lawsuit requests a jury trial.