Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is reconsidering the future of the city’s top civil rights official in the wake of intensifying criticism of her department’s hate crime hot line.
The mayor had planned to reappoint Velma Korbel this week, but delayed the decision after a Feb. 11 report in the Star Tribune about problems with the Department of Civil Rights hot line for people to report hate crimes. The employee hired to run the hot line, Kristin Johnson, said she was fired after raising concerns that it was poorly planned, possibly violated privacy rights and had no system for dealing with complaints from outside the city.
Frey and other elected officials have expressed concerns about Korbel and the hot line.
“She didn’t actually do a gosh darn thing,” said City Council Member Linea Palmisano. “And I think that does the most disservice. People who are the victim of this kind of language, these kinds of crimes, it’s hard for them to know where to turn. And if you give them a fake place to turn, it’s worse than doing nothing at all. That’s what gives me the shivers about this whole thing.”
In a statement, Frey, a former civil rights attorney, emphasized protecting free speech and ensuring the safety of Minneapolis residents.
“Recent reporting has highlighted issues with the Civil Rights Department’s hate crime hot line, which was launched last year as a way to track any increases in hate crimes and discrimination concerns,” he said. “In the weeks to come, I’ll be working with staff from across the City — including our 311 and Civil Rights Departments — to determine the future of the hot line. The focus of those conversations will be ensuring that people know the right point of contact for reporting such crimes and that we have the right resources in place for effectively investigating and responding to those reports.”
In an interview Tuesday, Korbel denied the hot line was “fake” and defended it as a “legitimate way to lodge any sort of complaint with the city.”
Korbel downplayed the depiction of the hot line as a new endeavor, saying she used “air quotes” when using the term hot line. Though the city marketed its launch with a news release, a poster and a web post, Korbel said the hot line was never intended to be anything more than an expansion of existing city services. Korbel also denied that the intent of the hot line was to police speech.
But internal e-mails provided by Johnson show a continued focus on speech in the hot line’s inception. One e-mail, sent to Korbel from the director of the complaint investigative divisions in February 2017, described the “overall goal” as: “Empower ordinary citizens to monitor and report hate speech.”
Another e-mail depicts frustrations from internal city communications staff about the use of the term “hate speech.” And when Johnson attempted to remove the term from the city’s website, Korbel ordered her to “leave it.”
Asked to explain the contradictions highlighted in the e-mails, Korbel said: “I’m giving you the explanation that the civil rights department doesn’t police speech. And the hate crime hot line was never set up to police a person’s speech.”
First nominated in 2010 by then-Mayor R.T. Rybak, Korbel was brought in to steer a department shaken by significant turnover under its previous leader. But in 2014, she faced a rocky reappointment when a former employee sent council members the transcript of an internal speech, in which Korbel told unhappy employees to find another job and blamed low morale on workers being lazy, gossiping and stealing from each other.
The City Council voted to reappoint her, but Council Member Cam Gordon directed the city coordinator to bring in a management consultant, “consider the reinstatement or creation of a new Civil Rights Department labor management committee” and present a report to the council by April 2014.
In an interview this week, Gordon said Korbel worked with an “executive coach.” But the city never convened a labor committee.
Gordon said it’s “possible” he will support Korbel for reappointment, but he was concerned to hear complaints raised about the hate crime hot line.
“If it’s not just an isolated incident, that would certainly give me pause for more reflection,” he said.
In an e-mail to City Council members dated Feb. 13, Korbel said she would be renominated for the position. “I am pleased to have been asked by Mayor Frey to continue to be part of this new administration as Civil Rights Director,” reads the e-mail, obtained by the Star Tribune. “I am excited to continue the journey with all of you.”
Korbel declined to say why she should be reappointed at this time.
“I don’t really want to talk about it in the same context of this story,” she said. “But I would love to talk about it when there is an official nomination.”