Staff members working at the jail that held Derek Chauvin, the white officer charged with murder in the killing of George Floyd, say that only white employees were allowed to guard him when he was first brought to the facility last month.
Eight officers have filed complaints with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, saying that the superintendent of the Ramsey County jail in St Paul kept them from bringing Chauvin to his cell — or even being on the same floor as him — last month, solely because of their race.
The officers, half of whom are black and all of whom are people of colour, said the orders from the superintendent, Steve Lydon, who is white, amounted to segregation and indicated that he thought they could not be trusted to do their jobs because they are not white.
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After initially denying that officers’ contact with Chauvin had been determined by race, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged the move this weekend and said Mr Lydon had been temporarily removed from the superintendent role as the sheriff investigates the officers’ claims.
Roy Magnuson, the spokesman, provided a statement that he said Mr Lydon gave to investigators. In it, Mr Lydon said he had segregated employees because he believed having people of colour interact with Chauvin could have “heightened ongoing trauma”. He said he had only done so on short notice and for 45 minutes before realising that he had made a mistake, after which he reversed the order and apologised. Officers said it had lasted longer — affecting one shift two days later — and that not enough had been done in response.
The discrimination complaints, which were first reported by The Star Tribune, were the latest instance in which correctional officials have been accused of giving preferential treatment to a white inmate. Some activists have for years argued that officers were too kind to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, when they placed him in a bulletproof vest and bought him food from Burger King. Critics said that a black suspect in a similar crime would not have gotten the same treatment.
In this case, one of the officers said in his complaint that he had seen, on the jail’s cameras, a white lieutenant let Chauvin use her phone inside his cell, a violation of the facility’s policy. Mr Magnuson said the Sheriff’s Office was opening an internal investigation into that claim.
A black sergeant who filed a complaint said in an interview that he was in charge of booking on 29 May, when Chauvin was brought to the jail, and that after he had patted Chauvin down, Mr Lydon told him not to have more contact with Chauvin and asked him who could transport the fired officer instead. When the sergeant pointed to two white officers, Mr Lydon seemed satisfied, said the sergeant, who is a captain in the US Army Reserve and has worked at the jail for more than a decade. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation from other law enforcement officers.
The officers said in their complaints that employees quickly realised, after Chauvin arrived, that many of the jail’s nonwhite employees had been sent to the third floor. Some began to cry, they said, and the sergeant said some openly questioned whether they should quit and considered walking off the job. He said tensions were already high among employees because people had burned down a Minneapolis police precinct the night before in protest of the killing of Floyd, who was black.
The sergeant and other officers said that, about an hour after Chauvin was booked into the jail, they were again kept from doing their jobs when an uncooperative inmate needed to be taken to the fifth floor, where Chauvin was being held. The sergeant said the officers had to wait until there were enough white officers to bring the inmate to the fifth floor, a special housing unit where high-profile, uncooperative and suicidal people are held.
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Bonnie M Smith, a lawyer in Minneapolis who is representing the eight officers, said at a news conference in front of the jail on Sunday that Mr Lydon’s claim that his order was meant to protect officers of colour was “absurd”, and that it had made the jail less safe.
“This order didn’t help protect anyone,” Ms Smith said. “It was a blatantly discriminatory order.”
She said none of her clients had been interviewed as part of the internal investigation. They are asking the Sheriff’s Office to permanently remove Mr Lydon from overseeing the jail and increase bias training. They are also asking the county to pay them unspecified money for emotional distress and compensation for shifts that some officers said they had missed because they were upset by what had happened.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights will investigate the claims. That office had launched a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department earlier this month. Chauvin was moved, last month, to the Oak Park Heights state prison just outside of St Paul.
New York Times