By ABBY VANDER GRAAFF, Laramie Boomerang
LARAMIE, Wyoming (AP) — Jamin Johnson was born into a family of law enforcement officers. Her father served 27 years as a police officer at the University of Wyoming, and two of her cousins and her twin brother serve with the Laramie Police Department.
It made sense that after graduating from UW in 2006, Johnson would take a position with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was something I felt honored to do to serve the community,” Johnson told Laramie Boomerang of his decision to start his own career in law enforcement.
It was just one aspect of Johnson’s desire to help those around him. While working at the Albany County Detention Center, he pursued a master’s degree in community health education from Western Governors University and interned in a local ministry, where he worked with children and made mission trips to Louisiana, Mississippi and Rwanda.
Johnson’s time in the sheriff’s office was quickly overshadowed by a pattern of prolonged discrimination he claims to have endured there. This resulted in his resignation from the department after 10 years of service, which he claims from his supervisor, Sgt. Christian Handley, imposed on him.
Now Johnson is suing Handley, alleging that his former colleague in the sheriff’s office made him the target of a pattern of racial discrimination and abuse that has gone on for years. He is represented by Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, a leading law firm known for its success in discrimination and excessive force cases in Wyoming and Colorado.
Handley, who was fired after a delayed investigation into Johnson’s claims, is represented by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, which declined to comment on the litigation.
Albany County and the district attorney’s office said they could not release information regarding whether a settlement existed between Johnson and the county regarding the claims.
Johnson, who no longer lives in Laramie, said he felt the need to speak about his experiences as a member of the sheriff’s office.
“I hope this will allow the internal culture of the Sheriff’s Office to change, allow more people to grow and thrive there, and make it a safe place to work,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the most important thing – that people who do hard enough work don’t have to endure extra hardship to do their job well.”
Johnson and Handley began working side by side as patrol deputies around 2011, according to Johnson’s lawsuit. While Johnson was only promoted to the position after serving four years, Handley was promoted immediately.
Handley began regularly referring to Johnson, who was the department’s only black deputy, using racial slurs such as the n-word and “jgaboo,” the complaint states.
By 2016, Handley had risen through the ranks to become a patrol sergeant, giving him more seniority and disciplinary power over Johnson than he had in other supervisory positions.
The complaint details an instance where Handley allegedly walked into a common area of the department and asked Johnson if he had ever had sex with a black woman, followed by the comment, “because that would be mean. It’s like having sex with a dog.
Another time, Handley described an arrest he made at UW, saying, “I stopped a car full of (n-words)…some black people are just (n-words).”
One day, Handley walked past Johnson’s house and shouted “mother whore (n-word)!” while Johnson was out with his family, according to the complaint.
Handley also wrote a performance review of Johnson accusing him of various instances of misconduct that never happened. When Johnson consulted with a colleague about creating a rebuttal of the review — which is permitted by sheriff’s office policy — Handley “disciplined Mr. Johnson for insubordination and dissent,” the complaint states.
Eventually, Handley’s complaints forced then-Sheriff David O’Malley to give Johnson two options: accept a suspension and demotion or quit his job altogether. Although Johnson says Handley’s disciplinary action was unfounded, he left the office to avoid “intolerable” working conditions, the complaint states.
“When I left the sheriff’s office, I had been defeated,” Johnson said. “I just felt destroyed by what I went through. I didn’t feel like I had the energy to speak up or fight what had happened.
It wasn’t until years later, in February 2021, that the sheriff’s office, under the new leadership of Sheriff Aaron Appelhans, contacted Johnson as part of an internal investigation into Handley’s behavior. The bureau fired Handley following the investigation.
Handley was also decertified as a peace officer by the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, according to The Sheridan Press.
“Over time, I was able to rebuild my strength and recognize that I was able to express myself,” Johnson said of his statement four years after his resignation.
The local investigation was just a small part of a wave of reforms Appelhans made immediately after his appointment as sheriff in December 2020. It focuses on streamlining and updating policies, procedures, budgets, recruitment transparency and de-escalation tactics.
Appelhans, Wyoming’s first black sheriff, represented progressive reforms that contrasted with the reputation of his predecessor.
“With the change in leadership at the sheriff’s office and in the county, I felt my story would actually be heard and taken seriously,” Johnson said.
O’Malley abruptly left office in November 2020 amid a $20 million lawsuit filed against Albany County after Derek Colling, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, shot and killed local resident Robbie Ramirez during a a traffic stop in 2018.
Before being hired at the sheriff’s office, Colling had already killed people twice while working at the Metropolitan Police Department in Las Vegas. He was fired from his job there after a video emerged showing Colling beating up a photographer who was filming police activity.
While O’Malley continued to defend Colling after the murder, Ramirez’s defenders argued that O’Malley should never have hired someone with a history of violence in the first place.
This isn’t the first time Handley has faced a lawsuit, either. In 2017, a University of Wyoming student came to the sheriff’s office to report a sexual assault and sued the office in 2020, claiming his concerns were not taken seriously by Handley and the investigator. Aaron Gallegos because he identified as LGBTQ.
It has been alleged that O’Malley knew about what happened with the UW student. In Johnson’s complaint, he says it was clear that Handley’s racism was also well known, if not by O’Malley, then by the multiple colleagues in the sheriff’s office who mentioned Johnson’s name as the target of the Handley’s racism during the 2021 survey interviews.
Multiple attempts to contact O’Malley to comment on the allegations made in Johnson’s lawsuit have failed.
“It was handled differently than when I handled it,” Appelhans said of O’Malley’s inaction regarding Handley’s behavior in the workplace. “We do not tolerate (discriminatory) behavior. It wasn’t right, and it never will be. We will always act accordingly immediately and hold people accountable. »
Employees of the Sheriff’s Office can file a discrimination or harassment complaint within the office or through the Albany County Human Resources Department, depending on the situation.
Residents who have experienced or witnessed these issues can do the same with a written complaint, which would likely trigger an investigation, or a verbal complaint, which would be documented but not necessarily trigger action, Appelhans said.
All complaints are directed to Sheriff Appelhans, who said he is working to outsource investigations to other agencies to increase transparency and minimize bias.
“If the public has a complaint, they should definitely come forward,” Appelhans said, noting that this is an “if you see something, say something” situation.
“It’s been a long year, where I’ve come in and the people I’ve had here have been really strong in making sure we’re working towards goals… to increase transparency, to make sure the hand- reflect our community and provide the services our audience wants,” said Appelhans.
Appelhans said he made changes to the sheriff’s office recruiting methods to encourage underrepresented community members like women and people of color to join law enforcement and that he’s tried to retain the assistants by offering them a more competitive salary.
In terms of mental health services, the office is working to partner with mental health care groups so those who are incarcerated or recently released can access more of the resources they need, Appelhans said.
His team also hired a medical provider within the detention center, increased staff training, and required that all deputies in the detention center and on duty elsewhere wear body cameras.
Johnson, who recently left the state for a new job in public health, said her experience hasn’t moved Laramie from a special place in her heart.
“Laramie is my home and Albany County is my home,” he said. “I deeply love the community and the people of Laramie.
“I hope this will be an opportunity for other people to talk about their experiences and feel like it’s safe to do so… (to) feel heard, (and to) feel like they don’t. won’t have to sacrifice their livelihood to express themselves.”
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