Johnny Grays, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, was prepared to shoot a man for no explicable reason.
That is one of the issues at the heart of his workplace racial discrimination and retaliation lawsuit, which has a significant legal twist and potentially far-reaching implications.
Grays, who is Black, and his partner were working near the international Blue Water Bridge, which connects Port Huron, Michigan, to Sarnia, Ontario, in March 2020 when they were told to stop a white SUV with Maryland license plates.
When the Black driver rummaged through the vehicle’s center console and glove box, the Grays became suspicious.
Grays, a 13-year agency veteran, drew his handgun and held it in the low-ready location, recalling, “You know, just in case.”
Thankfully, he never needed or used it.
The actions Grays perceived as conceivably threatening were caused by the driver’s unfamiliarity with his rental vehicle.
The driver and his wife were irritated by the police-instigated altercation, which rendered their two children hysterical. “Don’t shoot my daddy! ” the children exclaimed.
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Grays was enraged that he had traumatized this African American family for reasons that his White superiors had 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 of the examples given in the federal lawsuit filed by Grays and two other Black officers, Mikal Williams and Jermaine O. Broderick Sr., against the Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP.
Their complaint includes allegations of racial discrimination and employee retaliation.
However, a central charge is that of a hostile environment for Black officers as a result of racial discrimination against others.
If they win, it could have far-reaching consequences for government employees by allowing them to file complaints based on discriminatory treatment of non-employees.
If the officers lose, it could severely limit “a federal employee’s ability to be free of discrimination in the workplace,” according to their Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, lawyer Deborah Gordon.
The legal issue is whether it creates a hostile work environment when government employees witness or are forced to participate in offensive actions toward the public.
“The fact is,” Gordon said, “there’s not a lot of case law on that.”
That is the government’s defense.
The agency’s lawyers, who are represented by the Justice Department, do not directly dispute the officers’ facts. Instead, government lawyers 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.
Racism goes unchecked at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. https://t.co/zzhVUGrRkK
— American Immigration Council (@immcouncil) September 2, 2020
Sparse allegations is not how Grays views this issue.
Following his complaints, Grays was assigned to desk duty and stripped of his authority to carry a service weapon in April 2020.
Grays admitted that confronting his superiors was his sin.
— Krista Sparks (@KristaSparks95) August 30, 2020
He claimed that other officers who had their weapons taken away had been charged with violent felonies.
Beyond the court documents, Justice and CBP officials refused to comment on the lawsuit.
In response to a Michigan ACLU racial profiling report that found CBP arresting a disproportionate number of people of color in the state, the agency stated that “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.”
If "Our Gamecock family stands as one against racism and social injustice” then @UofSC should really stop inviting/hosting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement & U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection at USC career fairs. Further explanation is unnecessary.
— Katherine (@pausekthrn) June 6, 2020
According to the lawsuit, retaliation against Grays began soon after he and the other officers made verbal and written protests about CBP tactics and filed complaints with CBP’s Equal Employment Opportunity.
Grays claims that he, Williams, and Broderick are now treated as troublemakers.
U.S. citizens detained for speaking Spanish at Montana grocery store settle suit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection
— ColoradoIndependent (@ColoradoIndepe1) November 25, 2020
“We saw Black people and Brown people being mistreated,” he added, “and we chose to say something about it.”
However, the incident that led to desk duty had nothing to do with policing and everything to do with a doctor’s note.
— Michigan Online (@MichiganOnline) March 18, 2010
According to the lawsuit, 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, which was against standard procedures.
When Grays asked why his integrity was being questioned, he was met with a loud, profane argument. Grays was forced to work at a desk and his weapon was revoked as a result.
CBP officers seize ancient Egyptian mummy linen at northern border
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Michigan seized five jars of ancient Egyptian mummy linen coming illegally through the northern border last month.https://t.co/Jkm07a1yeQ https://t.co/rsz4EYiCyb
— Channel News (@Channel__News_) June 27, 2019
“To be a law enforcement officer and have your gun stripped is a huge deal,” Grays said, “a huge deal.”
Following the argument, his supervisor filed a report with Port Huron police charging Grays with acting in a “very aggressive manner, yelling and screaming.”
An incoming Ph.D. student at Michigan State University was deported after being stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Detroit Metro Airport. https://t.co/IuR4sxOMFv
— Michigan Radio (@MichiganRadio) January 28, 2020
The supervisor claimed a fear of being “punched or battered in some way.”
Grays identified the person filing the report as Beaudry, who declined to pursue criminal charges.
— DailyNewsFlow (@dailynewsflow) July 20, 2015
Grays admits to using profanity, but claims he was the only one touched during the argument, which is supported by the police report.
Beaudry grabbed Grays by the back of the vest and pulled him back into the office as he began to walk away from the confrontation.
Grays, who described himself as a “proud American,” demonstrated his patriotism by enlisting in three military services: the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army.
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 this past Monday.