The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A deputy got away with racism for years, a lawsuit says. Wyoming’s first Black sheriff fired him.

Sheriff Aaron Appelhans last year fired a deputy after allegations of racism and following an internal investigation. (Mead Gruver/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

In June 2017, Cpl. Jamin Johnson, who is Black, was in the common area of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in Laramie, Wyo., when one of his superiors, Sgt. Christian Handley, walked into the room and asked Johnson if he had ever had sex with a Black woman.

“Because that would be nasty,” Handley, who is White, told Johnson, according to a lawsuit Johnson filed this month. “That is like having sex with a dog.”

According to Johnson’s lawsuit, hearing such comments from Handley was routine. Handley frequently used slurs to refer to Black people, once yelling out the n-word while driving past Johnson’s home as Johnson and his family were stepping outside, the lawsuit charges.

Handley’s treatment of Johnson culminated in a flurry of “sham” disciplinary actions that eventually forced Johnson to resign in August 2017, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also reveals that Handley was fired last year following an internal investigation ordered by Wyoming’s first Black sheriff, Aaron Appelhans, who was appointed to the post in December 2020.

“It’s just disappointing to learn how long it had been going on prior to my arrival,” Appelhans told the Associated Press. “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.”

Johnson is now demanding monetary damages, saying that Handley racially discriminated against him and violated his constitutional rights to equal protection. A message left with a number listed for Handley was not immediately responded to late Monday. Handley, who is the only defendant named in the lawsuit, declined to comment to the AP.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office is based in Laramie, a college town that gained widespread attention in 1998 following the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. The incident became a cause celebre for LGBTQ rights and led to the passage of hate-crime laws.

A Wyoming bar sold a shirt promoting violence against gay people miles from Matthew Shepard’s murder site

Johnson joined the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in 2007, after growing up in the county and watching his father’s career as a University of Wyoming police officer. About four years into his tenure, Johnson met Handley, and the two men ended up working together.

During that time, Handley “began to engage in overt and abhorrent racism against Mr. Johnson, the only Black officer at” the sheriff’s office, the lawsuit states. That included racial slurs not only directed at Johnson, but also toward arrestees, according to the lawsuit.

Handley’s racism only became more intense, according to the lawsuit, as he was promoted to corporal in 2014 and later to patrol sergeant in 2016 — positions that had Johnson reporting to Handley. Not only did Handley frequently use racial epithets toward Johnson, but he also kicked off a campaign to remove Johnson from the agency, the lawsuit claims.

Shortly after being promoted to patrol sergeant, according to the suit, Handley started to write up Johnson, accusing him of lying, creating stories to cover up his mistakes and threatening his co-workers, all of which Johnson claims was a “sham.” Up until then, Johnson had received only positive reviews from his superiors, the lawsuit says.

In 2017, Handley’s alleged campaign to remove Johnson succeeded after Handley persuaded the agency’s leadership at the time to offer Johnson an ultimatum: Take a suspension and a demotion — or leave the sheriff’s office. Believing his acceptance of discipline would validate Handley’s racism, Johnson resigned.

Upon taking over, Appelhans planned to change the culture in the sheriff’s office, which had been accused of nepotism and selective enforcement, the New York Times reported.

Last year, he initiated a review of Handley’s behavior, according to the lawsuit. The details of the investigation are unclear, but the lawsuit says that Handley was fired following its conclusion.