U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Johnny Grays was ready to shoot a man for no good reason.

That’s one issue behind his workplace racial discrimination and retaliation lawsuit, which comes with a significant legal twist and potentially broad implications.

Grays, who is Black, and his partner were at work in March 2020 near the international Blue Water Bridge, connecting Port Huron, Mich., with Sarnia, Ontario, when they were ordered to stop a white SUV with Maryland tags. Grays became suspicious when the Black driver rummaged through the vehicle’s center console and glove box.

A 13-year agency veteran, Grays, 43, pulled his pistol and held it at the low-ready position, he recalled, “you know, just in case.”

Fortunately, he did not need it or use it.

It turned out that the actions Grays found potentially threatening stemmed from the driver’s unfamiliarity with his rental vehicle. The driver and his wife were upset with the police-generated confrontation that rendered their two children hysterical. “Don’t shoot my daddy!” the children said.

Grays was furious that he traumatized this African American family for reasons his White supervisors never explained.

“We basically scared the living daylights out of them,” he said by phone. “I want to know why. . . . I mean, we were given absolutely no reason why we were stopping this vehicle.”

“I believe they were profiled because they were a Black family, seen driving this nice SUV with out-of-state plates,” he added. “That’s what I believe.”

This is one example cited in the federal lawsuit that Grays and his fellow Black officers, Mikal Williams and Jermaine O. Broderick Sr., filed against the Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP. Their complaint, previously reported by the Detroit Free Press, includes allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation against employees. But a central charge concerns a hostile environment for Black officers because of racial discrimination against others.

If they win, it could have broad ramifications for government workers by empowering them to bring complaints based on discriminatory treatment of non-employees. If the officers lose, it could significantly limit “a federal employee’s ability to be free of discrimination in the workplace,” according to their lawyer, Deborah Gordon, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The legal question centers on whether it creates a hostile work environment when government employees observe or are made to participate in offensive actions toward the public. “The fact is,” Gordon said, “there’s not a lot of case law on that.”

Therein lies the government’s defense.

Justice Department lawyers representing the agency don’t directly dispute the officers’ facts. Instead the government attorneys argue the law.

“Because most of the alleged discrimination does not constitute an employment practice,” along with the officers’ “sparse allegations” of “direct discrimination against” them, the case should be dismissed, government lawyers argued in their brief.

Sparse allegations?

That’s not how it feels to Grays.

Following his complaints, in April 2020 Grays was assigned to desk duty and stripped of his authority to carry a service weapon. Grays said his sin was confronting his supervisors. He said other officers relieved of their weapons were accused of violent felonies.

Justice and CBP officials would not comment on the lawsuit beyond the court documents. In response to a Michigan ACLU racial profiling report that found CBP overwhelmingly arrested people of color in the state, the agency said it prohibits “consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement . . . in all but the most exceptional circumstances” and is “fully committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public.”

Retaliation against Grays began soon after he and the other officers made verbal and written protests about CBP tactics and after they filed complaints with CBP’s Equal Employment Opportunity office, according to the lawsuit.

Now, Grays said, he, Williams and Broderick are treated like snitches.

“We saw Black people and Brown people being mistreated,” he added, “and we chose to say something about it.”

Yet the issue immediately leading to desk duty was not about policing, but a doctor’s note.

In April 2020, Port Huron Chief CBP Officer Andrew Beaudry and Assistant Port Director Gerald Little ordered Grays to provide a doctor’s note for one day of sick leave, contrary to standard procedures, the lawsuit charges. When Grays asked why his integrity was challenged, a loud, profane argument ensued. The result: Grays was forced into desk duty, his weapon revoked.

“To be a law enforcement officer and have your gun stripped is a huge deal,” Grays said, “a huge deal.”

That’s not all.

After the argument, his supervisor filed a report with the Port Huron police charging Grays with acting in “a very aggressive manner, yelling and screaming.” The supervisor claimed a fear of being “punched or battered in some way.” The name of the person filing the report was redacted, but Grays identified the person as Beaudry, who declined to pursue criminal charges.

Grays acknowledges using profanity but said he was the only one touched during the argument, a point the police report backs. When Grays started to walk away from the confrontation, he said, “I was grabbed by the back of the vest and pulled back into the office” by Beaudry.

Grays, self-described as “such a proud American,” proved it by joining not one, but three military services: the Marines, the Air Force and the Army. He is a combat veteran who served in Iraq.

After “serving my country since I was 17,” he said his CBP experience “blows my mind” because the racial atmosphere at other CBP locations where he worked was better than in Port Huron.

For several months, “I was forced to sit outside the office of Chief Beaudry, required to ask permission to use the bathroom. I was only given access to certain bathrooms and water fountains,” he said. “All this was very purposeful and meant to intimidate and harass me.” That treatment stopped, but the desk duty remained.

“I’ve been on desk duty for over a year now,” Grays said this month, “and I’m basically charged with standing up to a White man.”

After 15 months, his desk duty ended Monday.

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