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With apology for ‘racist act’ by sheriff’s office, Minn. board signs off on $1.5M settlement for jailers

Correctional officers of color said in a lawsuit that they “were segregated and prevented from doing their jobs … solely because of the color of their skin” when former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was booked into the Ramsey County jail in St. Paul for the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

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The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, approved a settlement of nearly $1.5 million to eight correctional officers who worked at the Ramsey County jail.
Screenshot from video

As Ramsey County commissioners signed off on a nearly $1.5 million settlement Tuesday for correctional officers in the county jail, they apologized to the officers and had strong words for Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

The settlement came after eight correctional officers of color said in a lawsuit that they “were segregated and prevented from doing their jobs … solely because of the color of their skin” when former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was booked into the Ramsey County jail in St. Paul for the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Board Chairwoman Trista MatasCastillo, reading a statement on behalf of the board during their Tuesday meeting, said, “Today, we must once again call out and condemn the racist act committed by the sheriff’s office. We called on Sheriff Fletcher as an independently elected official to address these offenses when they occurred in 2020. We’re still waiting.”

MatasCastillo said the “sheriff’s office must demonstrate accountability for the actions on May 29 (2020). The lack of any real apology from the sheriff’s office and the fact that (then-jail superintendent) Steve Lydon remains to this day an appointed employee within the office reflects poor leadership and perpetuates the systematic racism that allowed a decision like this to occur.

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“We renew our call for Sheriff Fletcher to take corrective action and all steps necessary to ensure professional, respectful and equitable service delivery moving forward,” she continued. “As we call out this failure in leadership” at “the sheriff’s office, let us also be abundantly clear in our full support of our correctional officers and our deputies who do outstanding work in service to this community on a daily basis.”

SHERIFF RESPONDS

Fletcher said Tuesday that there were “several facts missing” in the county board’s statement. He said they met with the affected employees on June 4, 2020, and he issued an apology at that time. Undersheriff William Finney took over the duties of supervising the jail, Fletcher said.

Lydon said in a public statement in 2020 that “recognizing the murder of George Floyd was likely to create particularly acute racialized 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. Out of care and concern, and without the comfort of time, I made the decision to limit exposure to employees of color to a murder suspect who could potentially aggravate those feelings.”

Chauvin is white and Floyd was Black. Chauvin was later convicted of state charges, as well as separate federal civil rights charges, and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

Lydon said he reversed his decision after 45 minutes when he heard concerns, and he said he apologized to the affected employees.

Fletcher said Tuesday that Lydon “clearly (made) a bad decision, but I’m also aware that he was suffering from three days of sleep deprivation from being awake to assist in controlling and serving the needs of the riots.” He added that Lydon has a “30 year record of exemplary service” to Ramsey County and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Fletcher demoted Lydon from jail superintendent to director of planning and policy for the sheriff’s office.

JAILER: ‘JOURNEY TOWARD HEALING’

The correctional officers’ lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court asserted claims of discrimination and a hostile work environment based on their race and the color of their skin, as well as retaliation. They identify as Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander-American and multiracial, according to their attorney.

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Four of the correctional officers continue working for Ramsey County and four are no longer employees.

Devin Sullivan, an acting sergeant at the jail and one of the people who filed the lawsuit, said in a Tuesday statement: “Trust and accountability are critical to our safety as correctional officers, and Superintendent Lydon’s segregation order broke this trust. 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. Our goal in bringing attention to the segregation order was to ensure Ramsey County was held accountable for its discriminatory actions and practices. We hope the county and Detention Center will continue working toward overall culture changes that create a safe and welcoming work environment for all.”

Attorneys for Ramsey County and the officers took part in mediation and agreed to the settlement in July. Two of the settlement agreements for correctional officers are for $251,000, five for $176,000 and one for $76,000.

Lucas Kaster, an attorney representing the officers, said their courage “cannot be overstated.”

“During an unprecedented time in our community, the officers took the bold action to step forward and speak out against the segregation and racism they experienced,” he said in a statement. “The past two years have not been easy for them, but the Board’s actions (Tuesday) acknowledge the harm experienced by the officers and are critical steps toward justice and accountability.”

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