Jessica Kingston, the former St. Paul human rights director who received a $250,000 settlement from the city in exchange for leaving her job, said she repeatedly raised concerns that the police department was blocking investigations of officer misconduct.
In an interview Wednesday, Kingston said her concerns went unheeded and made her position intolerable, prompting her to file a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
That complaint has since been withdrawn as part of the settlement agreement approved by the City Council last month, which provided no details on the dispute. Kingston’s decision to speak publicly this week provided the first indication that the conflict involved the city’s civilian commission that looks into allegations of excessive force and other transgressions by police.
Kingston’s complaint has exposed a continuing disagreement at City Hall about the scope of civilian oversight of police misconduct, something that Mayor Melvin Carter said will be resolved.
In her complaint, filed March 14 and provided to the Star Tribune, Kingston accused top police officials of engaging in “microaggressions against me in an effort to undermine my ability” to operate the city’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC) through false accusations, exclusion from decisions and constant criticism of her and her staff.
“If I was a white male, this would not be occurring,” Kingston wrote in her complaint to the state. “The SPPD simply does not want an African American female exercising oversight over their internal affairs review process, and is doing everything in their power to prevent me from doing what is necessary to ensure racial equality and integrity in PCIARC.”
In a statement, police Chief Todd Axtell called Kingston’s complaint “false allegations.”
“For over 30 years, I’ve dedicated my life — both personal and professional — to championing and achieving equity in law enforcement as well as in the City of Saint Paul,” Axtell said. “Those who know me and work with me know my character, heart, history and actions. They know that I have absolutely no tolerance for the type of behavior Ms. Kingston alleges took place.”
Also in a statement, the mayor stood by the chief.
“Throughout his 30 years of service, Chief Axtell has led with integrity and respect,” Carter said. “He has my full support as he continues to lead our Saint Paul Police Department.”
In the interview, Kingston said her complaints that police were blocking civilian oversight of officers brought about such hostility that she could no longer keep working for the city.
“It just kept coming,” she said. “It got to the point of being treated differently in front of others at a very different level.”
Kingston was hired as the city’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) department director in 2012. In December 2016, her department gained responsibility for civilian oversight of police misconduct when the City Council voted to remove police officers from the review commission.
In Kingston’s view, every complaint filed against officers should have gone to the commission. That was consistent with the Police Department’s 2001 agreement with the St. Paul NAACP, a 2015 University of Minnesota audit of the commission and city policy, she said.
St. Paul NAACP President Dianne Binns said while she doesn’t interpret the agreement as directly addressing the review commission, when it was written “we had no idea that we were not going to get all the cases.”
Police closing complaints without forwarding them to the review commission “was an ongoing thing even before Jessica Kingston was even brought into this situation,” she said.
On Dec. 26, 2017, as then Mayor-elect Carter was transitioning into office, Kingston wrote to incoming Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher about how the Police Department was handling complaints.
“It has recently come to my attention that [the Police Department], without my approval or knowledge, no longer sends inappropriate use of firearms, non-civilian initiated and not all civilian initiated complaints to PCIARC for review and processing,” Kingston wrote. “This is evident by the most recent decision regarding a dog biting case and the fact that it has been months since the Commission received a firearms case for review.”
Police Department spokesman Steve Linders said Kingston is correct that not all complaints that came into the Police Department were sent to the review commission. The department decides how to handle complaints based on the state Peace Officer Discipline Procedures Act, in consultation with the city attorney’s office, he said.
“[Kingston is] right, and she did make us aware of her concerns, and we provided her with summary data explaining how many cases were not sent to PCIARC and why,” Linders said.
Axtell provided Kingston with complaint data in a Feb. 20 e-mail, which was provided to the Star Tribune. The chief wrote that the Police Department and HREEO together received 77 complaints in 2017. Of those, 42 were not investigated.
Axtell gave five reasons for not investigating those complaints: 10 were the subject of an open criminal investigation, three resulted in the complainant being referred to mental health services, 11 were complaints about a non-St. Paul police officer, seven did not allege a policy violation and 11 complaints were withdrawn.
In an interview Thursday, Carter said that because the human rights department’s role in overseeing the review commission is so recent, there’s still disagreement about how it should operate. City officials will work to address that, he said.
“What I want is transparency and accountability,” the mayor said.
Last month, the City Council approved a $250,000 settlement with Kingston, in which she agreed to withdraw “any charges or complaints filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the fullest extent permitted by law.”
City Council President Amy Brendmoen declined to comment Thursday.
Kingston was placed on paid leave Aug. 23 — the day she signed the settlement agreement.
As part of the settlement, the city agreed to continue paying Kingston’s medical benefits and pension contributions through Oct. 31. She agreed not to try to get her old job back.
Kingston was paid $69.30 per hour, city officials said, or about $144,000 a year.
In August, Carter announced that the city will form two community panels to help select a new human rights director and emergency management director. The panels will begin reviewing candidates for the jobs on Nov. 1. Officials said the goal is to appoint new directors in January 2019.