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Minnesota county settles with minority officers blocked from Chauvin

Eight minority jail officers alleged only White officers were allowed to interact with Derek Chauvin after his arrest in the 2020 killing of George Floyd

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in a June 2021 video image, addresses the court. (AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota county agreed to pay $1.5 million to eight minority correctional officers who sued after they said only White employees were allowed to guard or interact with Derek Chauvin at the jail where he was held after his arrest in the killing of George Floyd.

The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to settle a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination by current and former employees at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center in St. Paul, where the former Minneapolis police officer surrendered after being charged in the 2020 killing.

Under settlement terms, the county agreed to pay the officers an amount roughly between $75,000 and $250,000 apiece to settle claims of discrimination, a hostile work environment and mental distress. They had said the then-superintendent at the jail, who is White, ordered employees of color to “segregate” on a separate floor from Chauvin and blocked them from doing their jobs because of their race. Chauvin is White and Floyd, the man Chauvin was convicted of murdering, was Black.

As part of the settlements approved Tuesday, Ramsey County admitted no wrongdoing. But after voting to approve the settlement, board members issued a formal apology to the corrections officers for what one described as a “racist act” by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees operations at the jail, and criticized the department for continued “failure in leadership” and a “lack of accountability” for its handling of the May 29, 2020, incident.

“No one should ever should have questioned your ability to perform your job based on the color of your skin,” Ramsey County board chair Trista MatasCastillo said.

The eight officers — including four who still work for Ramsey County — filed a state civil rights complaint in June 2020 and later sued in state district court over allegations of racial discrimination. The officers said they were on regular duty at the jail when Chauvin was taken into custody after days of fiery unrest across the Twin Cities following Floyd’s death on May 25.

As the jail prepared for Chauvin’s arrival, a supervisor pulled all officers of color from their regular duties, according to the lawsuit, and asked them to report to the third floor of the facility, away from the fifth floor where Chauvin would be held in a secluded cell. All were replaced by White officers, the lawsuit claimed.

One of the plaintiffs, Devin Sullivan, an acting sergeant who is described in the lawsuit as Black with dark skin, had regularly processed high-profile inmates while working at the jail for more than a decade. According to the lawsuit, Sullivan was patting down Chauvin when he was interrupted and told to stop by Steve Lydon, the jail’s superintendent who replaced him with White officers.

Sullivan, who is also a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and spent three years as chief commander of the largest company in the state National Guard, subsequently learned from other minority officers that they too had been ordered by Lydon to stay away from Chauvin.

The lawsuit said Sullivan checked security camera feeds and saw that officers with dark skin who usually worked on the facility’s fifth floor were being reassigned. Lighter-skinned officers who appeared to be White were “not moved,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also claimed Chauvin received special treatment at the facility, including from a jail official who is related to his sister.

Two of the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit that they watched on a security camera as a fellow corrections officer, who is White, was granted “special access” to the unit where Chauvin was being held. The officers said in the lawsuit that on security camera footage they observed the woman enter Chauvin’s cell, sit on his bed and pat him on the back “while appearing to comfort him.” The corrections officer, who is not named in the lawsuit, allowed him to use her cellphone, the plaintiffs said — a violation of jail policy.

The lawsuit alleged that Lt. Lugene Werner, one of the White jail officials on duty that day, asked a Black officer to help her “explain” the “segregation order” to the jail’s minority staff. According to public records, Werner is a relative of Chauvin’s sister. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about Werner, including whether jail officials were aware of her personal connection to Chauvin.

Lydon, who was reassigned but still works for the sheriff’s office, later defended his actions. He claimed in a June 2020 statement to reporters that he had been given only 10 minutes’ notice that Chauvin would turn himself in at the jail and that he was concerned about how that might affect employees of color in a region reeling from Floyd’s death and the protests that followed.

“Recognizing that the murder of George Floyd was likely to create a particularly acute radicalized trauma, I felt I had an immediate duty to protect and support employees who may have been traumatized and may have heightened ongoing trauma by having to deal with Chauvin,” Lydon said in the statement.

On Tuesday, board chair MatasCastillo strongly criticized Sheriff Bob Fletcher and his office for its handling of the incident. “The lack of any real apology from the sheriff’s office and the fact that Steve Lydon remains to this day an appointed employee within the office reflects poor leadership and perpetuates the systemic racism that allowed a decision like this to occur,” MatasCastillo said.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lucas Kaster, one of the attorneys for the correctional officers, praised the “courage” of his clients for coming forward to speak about the racism they had experienced, saying it had “not been easy for them.” The plaintiffs had previously spoken about being criticized by other officers within the department for speaking out about the jail’s handling of Chauvin.

In a statement, Sullivan, who still works for Ramsey County, pressed the sheriff’s office to continue pursuing “overall culture changes that create a safe and welcoming work environment for all.”

“Trust and accountability are critical to our safety as correctional officers, and Superintendent Lydon’s segregation order broke this trust,” Sullivan said. “Each of us is on our own journey toward healing from this damaging discrimination and the aftermath, and these settlements will help us open a next chapter.”