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Wyoming's first Black sheriff fired White deputy over alleged racism, lawsuit says

Wyoming-Black Sheriff
Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans in the county courthouse in Laramie, Wyoming in February 2021.  Mead Gruver / AP

Cheyenne, Wyoming — Wyoming's first Black sheriff last year fired a 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 Sergeant Christian Handley once drove past and yelled a profanity and the N-word at Corporal 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.

"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 says.

Johnson is suing Handley, seeking a jury trial if necessary and damages for the years of racism that he says led up to his decision to quit in 2017.

The allegations put a new spotlight on the sheriff'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 Aaron Appelhans' appointment as Wyoming's first Black sheriff in the wake of an outcry in Laramie over a deputy'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 Johnson's lawsuit against Handley, filed Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. The suit didn't provide the reason for the stop.

Handley declined to comment when reached by phone and asked about the lawsuit Monday.

The alleged racism against Johnson happened more than three years before Appelhans took office in late 2020, and Appelhans said Monday he wasn't aware of it until shortly after starting the job. He said he's made changes in the past year to ensure that all policies are followed, to move internal investigations out of the sheriff's office to the county human resources office, and to personally sign off on all hires, promotions and dismissals.

"It's just disappointing to learn how long it had been going on prior to my arrival," Appelhans said. "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."

Besides using racial epithets, Handley'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 Handley's "widespread and well-known" 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.

Appelhans' predecessor from the time of the allegations, former Sheriff Dave O'Malley, also declined to comment Monday. The lawsuit mentions O'Malley but doesn't accuse him of wrongdoing.

Because O'Malley was a Democrat, his 2020 retirement enabled 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 "overt and abhorrent racism" when they were both deputies from 2011 to 2014 and Johnson was the department's only Black officer, the lawsuit alleges.

Handley nonetheless climbed the ranks in the sheriff's office, becoming part of the department's "old boys' club" and a "trusted voice" 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 "decided to unleash pent-up racism" after becoming his boss, according to the lawsuit.

Handley also wrote "several other sham disciplinary actions" against Johnson, "all designed to force his resignation," alleges the lawsuit.

The lawsuit calls Handley's claims "utterly unsubstantiated," but says he nonetheless persuaded O'Malley to issue an ultimatum to Johnson: Either accept a suspension and demotion to patrol deputy, or leave the sheriff's office. Johnson soon resigned.

Appelhans' appointment as Wyoming's first Black sheriff came two years after Corporal Derek Colling killed an unarmed man after a traffic stop. A grand jury found Colling didn'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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