Eight minority Ramsey County corrections officers have filed discrimination charges with the state’s Department of Human Rights after they were barred from guarding or having any other contact with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last month.
Chauvin was booked at the county jail the same day he was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
As Chauvin arrived, all officers of color were ordered to a separate floor, and a supervisor told one of them that, because of their race, they would be a potential “liability” around Chauvin, according a copy of racial discrimination charges obtained by the Star Tribune.
“I understood that the decision to segregate us had been made because we could not be trusted to carry out our work responsibilities professionally around the high-profile inmate — solely because of the color of our skin,” wrote one acting sergeant, who is black. “I am not aware of a similar situation where white officers were segregated from an inmate.”
Bonnie Smith, a Minneapolis attorney representing the eight employees, said the order left a lasting impact on morale.
“I think they deserve to have employment decisions made based on performance and behavior,” she said. “Their main goal is to make sure this never happens again.”
In explaining his actions, jail Superintendent Steve Lydon later told superiors that he was informed Chauvin would be arriving in 10 minutes, and made a call “to protect and support” minority employees by shielding them from Chauvin.
“Out of care and concern, and without the comfort of time, I made a decision to limit exposure to employees of color to a murder suspect who could potentially aggravate those feelings,” Lydon reportedly said in a statement given during an internal investigation and provided by the Sheriff’s Office to the Star Tribune. He has since been demoted.
Formal charges filed Friday night are expected to automatically trigger a state investigation. It would mark the second Department of Human Rights racism probe into a law enforcement agency in recent weeks. The agency launched a sweeping inquiry into the Minneapolis Police Department after Floyd’s death. That investigation will examine MPD policies and procedures over the past 10 years to determine whether the department has engaged in discriminatory practices.
Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero declined to comment on the pending case in Ramsey County.
On May 29, word spread that Chauvin had been arrested and would be booked at the Ramsey County jail. A black acting sergeant who typically oversees the transport of high-profile inmates started a routine pat-down on Chauvin. Lydon instructed the sergeant to stop and replaced him with white officers, the charges say.
A fellow sergeant informed him that Lydon had ordered all minority employees from the fifth floor, where Chauvin was being held in isolation, and prohibited them from having any contact with Chauvin. In every case, white colleagues were swapped in to perform their normal duties.
Later that afternoon, officers of color gathered on the third floor to console one another about what they deemed a “segregation order.” Some were crying, charges say, while others were openly contemplating whether they should quit. Individuals who complained were told to take it up with Lydon.
In written statements, all eight staffers recount a meeting with Lydon where he admitted to banning officers of color from the fifth floor but denied being racist. He defended that decision, charges say, yet reversed the order within 45 minutes.
A union steward complained to top brass, prompting the internal investigation. During his interview, Lydon explained that he recognized Floyd’s death would “likely create acute racialized trauma” for minority staff and felt he had a duty to protect them from Chauvin. Lydon claimed the decision was not related to his workers’ professionalism or concerns over Chauvin’s safety.
“I realized that I had erred in judgment and issued an apology to the affected employees,” he said.
But by then, at least one officer’s work schedule had already changed for the weekend.
On May 30, multiple officers reported seeing surveillance footage of a white lieutenant who was granted special access to Chauvin’s cell, where she sat on his bunk and allowed him to use her cellphone — a significant policy violation.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on that allegation. Chauvin was moved to the Hennepin County jail on May 31 and for security reasons transferred again to the Oak Park Heights maximum security prison, where he remains.
Nearly a week after the initial incident, dozens of jailers met with Sheriff Bob Fletcher and elected an acting sergeant to read a two-page letter on the behalf of the minority staff. The note recalled his confrontation with Lydon, the shock he felt upon being called “a liability” around Chauvin and the command to notify other officers of color that they were being reassigned to a different floor.
“I immediately left feeling sick to my stomach,” the letter states. “The hurt and anger these officers displayed was evident not only in their body language, but in their voice.”
The sergeant went on to explain that the order caused division among the ranks and cast doubt on the professionalism of even veteran officers. He did not request Lydon’s termination, but said his judgment “caused us officers to lose faith in his ability to run this facility.”
In response, Fletcher promised to reassign Lydon from the jail and follow up with an e-mail regarding how the agency could move forward, charges say. Employees claimed he never did.
Fletcher declined multiple requests for comment. Sheriff’s office spokesman Roy Magnuson initially refused to name Lydon’s current position or divulge whether he’d been transferred. On Saturday, Magnuson said Lydon had been removed from his role as jail superintendent. He will now report to Undersheriff Bill Finney, who’s been tapped to run the Detention Division in the interim. Fletcher is “reviewing the matter to determine if any additional action is necessary,” Magnuson wrote in a statement.
The department’s admission that several officers were reassigned from their posts that day, however briefly, stands in stark contrast to its original narrative to the press.
When Reuters inquired about a segregation order, Magnuson responded via e-mail that there was “no truth to the report” and that Chauvin “was treated according to procedure.”
The outright denial only deepened the wound for officers of color.
“They were calling us all liars,” said an acting sergeant, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “I can’t go to work and hold my head up knowing that they can just brush this under the rug.”
The sergeant said he was so disturbed by the decision to segregate staff that he left work early in tears. He later turned down a promotion and the added pay that came with it.
When pressed about the agency’s initial statement, Magnuson claimed: “When I asked, that’s what I was told.”
All eight employees, whose tenures range from two to 10 years, characterized the order as the “most overtly discriminatory act” they’ve experienced working for Ramsey County.
One noted that if a man is booked for domestic assault charges related to beating up his wife, female officers are not ordered to avoid them — regardless of how that crime may make them feel.
“My fellow officers of color and I were, and continue to be, deeply humiliated, distressed, and negatively impacted by the segregation order,” the charges say, which describe a “hostile work environment” at the detention center since officials’ failure to address the incident.
“The damage had been done. These jobs are super sensitive, highly dangerous at times and involve an immense amount of trust,” said Smith, their attorney. “They struggle walking into a building where the superintendent is still affiliated.”