A Minneapolis hot line designed to streamline reporting for hate crimes across the state has been riddled with dysfunction that's prevented it from effectively helping victims, according to the person hired to run it.

After the city's Department of Civil Rights launched the hot line last summer, it was deluged with complaints saying the service itself was an assault on free speech, said Kristin Johnson, whom the city hired as a complaint officer in March 2017.

In November, the city fired Johnson for insubordination, which she alleges was retribution for challenging her bosses on the hot line's problems.

As an employee for the city of Minneapolis, Johnson said she had no authority over violations outside city limits, despite the city promoting it as a statewide clearinghouse for complaints. In her eight months working there, Johnson said the department didn't forward a single complaint from callers outside Minneapolis to the appropriate investigative agency.

"I frankly hated calling them back," said Johnson. "Some of them had really awful things happen to them. And I had to call them back and say, 'There's not actually anything I can do for you.' "

Minneapolis spokesman Casper Hill said the city would not comment on Johnson's claims, citing "pending litigation." Johnson has not sued, but her attorney, Brian Rochel, notified the city that she may sue for wrongful termination, citing a violation of the state's Whistleblower Act.

In a Star Tribune interview last month, Department of Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel described launching the hot line as "absolutely necessary" in a time when people badly needed guidance on how to report bias crimes.

"I think that it's still necessary, but I think people have probably figured out where their resources are," she said. "They know we're there."

Backlash on 'hate speech'

In announcing the hot line in June 2017, Korbel celebrated it as a defense against attacks inspired by racism and xenophobia after the 2016 election. Following in the footsteps of a similar hot line in Seattle, the idea was to invite people from all over Minnesota to report hate crimes to Minneapolis' 311 operators. A civil rights officer would then assess the complaints and refer them to the appropriate agency.

"In no uncertain terms, hate-motivated speech and actions have no place in Minneapolis nor will they be tolerated," Korbel said in a statement.

The reference to the election and mention of "hate speech" triggered a backlash. Former Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann called it the implementation of "Islamic anti-blasphemy laws on non-Muslims." A First Amendment authority agreed there was reason for concern, given no law defined hate speech. The city could police discrimination in the workplace or schools, but the government had no authority over speech that didn't rise to terroristic threats or incitement of violence.

Publicly, Korbel downplayed the speech element of the hot line, saying in a July 2017 Star Tribune interview this had been blown out of proportion by the blogosphere. "The hot line is not a tool to curtail anybody's free speech."

But inside City Hall, the focus was speech.

Her immediate supervisor stated the goal of Johnson's job in writing as to "empower ordinary citizens to monitor and report hate speech in-person or online," and combat hate speech against "migrants, refugees and minorities," making no mention of any other types of hate crimes, according to internal e-mails provided by Johnson. Less than a week after the public launch, at the behest of the city communications department, Johnson removed the term "hate speech" from the city website, and Korbel ordered her to put it back in, according to the e-mails.

The emphasis on speech caused confusion and frustration among other city departments. Staff for Minneapolis' 311 line, which was fielding the calls, said they didn't know what "hate speech" meant. One communications staffer complained the city received hundreds of complaints on Twitter about First Amendment violations, according to the e-mails. "However we respond, we just need to be clear that is for hate crimes, harassment and discrimination, and not hate speech."

Johnson — the sole employee tasked directly with assessing these allegations — said she spent weeks trying to keep up with callers complaining about the hot line, and spent her time explaining the city would not in fact prosecute speech. She taped the statutes to her cubicle so she could read the language verbatim to callers.

Though Johnson said her co-workers dismissed the complaints as fringe attacks, she worried the city was in fact damaging its integrity by taking an official position that contradicted the law.

"We're the Department of Civil Rights. We determine whether or not someone has violated anti-discrimination ordinances," she said. "You cannot, I think, just blatantly misstate the law on the homepage of a quasi-judicial agency and maintain credibility for the decisions you're issuing."

Policing statewide

Johnson said she also struggled to make good on the city's promise for the hot line to take in hate crime reports all across the state of Minnesota.

When she started her position in March, Johnson said there was "no process" for following up on allegations that didn't fall under the city's normal civil rights purview.

"I can't refer people to the Itasca [sheriff], for example," she said. "I'm a low-level complaint officer in the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights. They don't care what I want them to do."

In the July 2017 interview, Korbel said they would send these non-city complaints to "partners" around the state, listing the FBI and city of St. Paul as examples.

However, a spokesman for the FBI said they were not aware of any partnership. St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders said the department has never been engaged in conversations about the hot line, and has not received any complaints to investigate. A spokesman for the St. Paul Department of Human Rights said staff there had some early talks with Minneapolis on the hot line, "but nothing has been made formal at this point as far as St. Paul being a formal partner."

Johnson also started raising concerns about data privacy. She said in an interview she worried about operators taking names, addresses and other personal information and not providing adequate disclosure of how the information would be used.

And she worried about whether the city was making personal information about complaints filed by undocumented immigrants available to immigration authorities.

"I'm not even sure that the callers understood clearly that 311 was going to e-mail their information to another department," she said.

Johnson said her questions about data mostly fell on deaf ears in her own department, so she met with the City Clerk's Office once to discuss a data retention and destruction schedule. She was terminated shortly afterward.

Protest, then termination

In a recent interview with the Star Tribune unrelated to this story, Korbel said the hot line at its peak received 60 calls per hour, many complaining about the hot line's implications for free speech. Since then, "this has slowed down to just about a trickle," she said

In Johnson's official termination letter, the city lists "insubordination," "performance issues" and "failure to adhere to work rules governing work hours" as reason for her dismissal. Johnson disputes that her performance was lacking. She said the volume of duties often exceeded her 40-hour workweek and her supervisors didn't want her to work overtime.

Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report. Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036