Ramsey County commissioners rebuked jail leadership Tuesday for barring correctional officers of color from guarding Derek Chauvin and said they welcomed an external investigation of the sheriff's department amid charges of discrimination.
Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was booked at the county jail May 29 after he was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
All officers of color at the county jail were ordered to a separate floor and prohibited from any contact with Chauvin because a supervisor said their race would be a potential "liability" around Chauvin, according to a copy of racial discrimination charges filed Friday on behalf of eight officers.
Toni Carter, the Ramsey County Board chairwoman, said the allegations "are of high concern."
"We are appalled and angered that several Ramsey County employees of color were allegedly prevented from performing their professional responsibilities," Carter said, reading from a written statement during Tuesday's board meeting. "We stand united in apologizing to the employees involved, and also in commending them for speaking up to demand the professional respect and human dignity they are due."
Jail Superintendent Steve Lydon has since been demoted. The Department of Human Rights is expected to launch a racism probe into the county jail. The state agency is also investigating the Minneapolis Police Department following Floyd's death.
Commissioner Jim McDonough said Sheriff Bob Fletcher lacks accountability and perpetuates racism and cronyism in the department. He and other commissioners welcomed an external investigation into the department since Fletcher is unwilling to work together with commissioners, McDonough said.
In April, Fletcher rehired two former employees McDonough said the county worked hard to fire. One officer was accused of falsifying time sheets while the other received ongoing racist, sexist and pornographic messages on his work e-mail.
McDonough questioned the election process for sheriffs and whether that's the best way to address public safety. Other commissioners agreed with taking a deeper look at structural changes, and whether appointing a sheriff is a better approach.
"There is this pattern of abuse of power," McDonough said. "I am angered and saddened that with all the good work this county is moving forward on, that we spend so much time on the harm the sheriff is causing in our community. It just sucks the air out of the room."
Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said while she was "shocked" by the news report over the weekend about the discrimination charges, she noted examples in Fletcher's "failure of leadership" over and over again. Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem said there is no excuse for discrimination.
"Every supervisor should know that you cannot change someone's work duties or work assignments solely based on that person's race," she said. "That is civil and human rights 101."
Carter announced a set of actions to uphold commitment to racial equity by requesting the Human Rights Department conduct a broad investigation that may include other aspects of Ramsey County to address past missteps.
The board is also requesting the sheriff immediately use a vacant position to create a "trust and accountability officer" who will report to the deputy county manager within the Safety and Justice Service Team. The position would also work closely with the county's chief compliance and ethics officer.
Carter said to bring "more significant structural change" the board will be evaluating the home rule charter and pertinent legislation to identify the appropriate process for the community in whether the sheriff should be elected or appointed. She said this re-evaluation is intended to provide more transparent, accountable and equitable public safety services across Ramsey County.
Fletcher in a statement Tuesday night said he supports the external investigation, but would not comment on whether his department would create a new trust and accountability officer position.
"We are confident any investigation will confirm best practices at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office," Fletcher said.
"Our elected Sheriff's Office has a strong, trusting relationship with the community. What we really need is an elected county manager who represents the needs of Ramsey County's citizens instead of the seven politicians who have confused accountability with control."