Two of the plaintiffs say 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 say in the lawsuit that they observed the woman on security camera footage 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 also alleges 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.
Lucas Kaster, an attorney for the officers, said his clients learned that Werner had a personal connection to Chauvin after they made public complaints.
“Her being on duty isn’t necessarily something that we would take issue with, but her receiving some special privileges and Officer Chauvin receiving some special privileges would certainly be something that we would take issue with,” Kaster said.
A spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The lawsuit follows a state civil rights complaint made last summer. The eight officers — seven currently on staff at the jail and one who took a mental health leave after the incident and was subsequently terminated in December — say they were on regular duty at the jail on May 29 when Chauvin was taken into custody after days of fiery protests following Floyd’s Memorial Day death.
“George Floyd’s murder was a blatant example of the discrimination that people of color experienced in our communities every single day. But unfortunately, the discrimination that Mr. Floyd experienced didn’t stop at 38th and Chicago,” Kaster said, noting the alleged discriminatory handling of Chauvin and Black employees at the jail.
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 transported and held in a secluded cell. All were replaced by White officers, the lawsuit claims.
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 in the middle of patting Chauvin down 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 had been ordered by Lydon to stay away from Chauvin.
The lawsuit says 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 says.
By then, word had spread that all of the jail’s minority staff were being “segregated” away from Chauvin, prompting “anger” and “shock.” All eight plaintiffs say they were unaware of any other incident in which jail staff had been segregated. According to the lawsuit, Sullivan reached out to more senior staff asking “if anyone told Lydon that it is illegal to assign staff based on the color of their skin” but was largely rebuffed.
According to the lawsuit, Sullivan returned to the jail’s booking area, where he claims Werner approached him and asked whether he would help her explain Lydon’s “segregation order” to the staff. “Sullivan politely refused, stating that if he was to explain this it would look like he supported the discriminating order, and it would be especially insulting because he was a person of color,” the lawsuit says. According to the complaint, it was the first time in his career that Sullivan had refused an order.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment about Werner’s role at the jail while Chauvin was held there.
The complaints later spurred an investigation by Ramsey County law enforcement officials in which Lydon insisted he wasn’t racist. He told county officials that he had acted quickly, having learned just 10 minutes before that Chauvin would be arriving at the jail. In a statement provided to reporters, Lydon said he was concerned about how Chauvin’s presence might affect employees of color after days of civil unrest across the Twin Cities.
“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, adding that after he met with minority staffers, he “realized my error and reversed the order.”
But attorneys for the officers of color have questioned Lydon’s account, pointing to comments he made to the affected staff during the segregation. According to the lawsuit, he told one corrections officer that he had made the order to “protect them because if something happened to Chauvin, the officers of color would be blamed.”
According to the sheriff’s office, Lydon was temporarily reassigned to other duties last summer amid the ongoing investigation. A county spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about his current duties or whether any staff had been disciplined.
Plaintiffs say they filed a lawsuit because of continued fallout from the incident. They claim no one has been disciplined and that officers who went public with complaints last summer now deal with a “hostile work environment” that has openly exposed racial tensions among staff. They say the county has enacted no new policies to prevent anything like it from happening again.
“They’re deeply humiliated and distressed. And the bonds necessary within the high-stress and high-pressure environment of the [jail] have been broken,” Kaster said.
He said his clients had missed work and taken leave “due to mental anguish” and that some had “lost professional opportunities.”
“But more than anything, they lost their professional reputations and their professional dignity,” he said, because a senior manager questioned their ability to perform their duties in a professional way and “did so merely because of the color of their skin and their race.”