Eight Minnesota corrections officers filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming they were forbidden from guarding—or even being on the same floor as—Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who has been charged with killing George Floyd, because they are not white. When Chauvin, who was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, was brought to the Ramsey County jail on May 29, all minority officers were ordered to go to a separate floor. A supervisor told them that they would be a potential “liability” around Chauvin because of their race, according to the discrimination charges that were filed with the state’s Department of Human Rights and reviewed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
All the guards who were told to leave the fifth floor where Chauvin was going to be housed were people of color, and they were replaced with white officers, Bonnie Smith, the attorney representing the eight corrections officers, said. That decision “humiliated and debased” the affected officers, Smith said, noting that decisions on work should be “based on performance and behavior” rather than race.
One of the affected officers pointed out that white officers had never been told they couldn’t guard someone. “I understood that the decision to segregate us had been made because we could not be trusted to carry out our work responsibilities professionally around the high-profile inmate—solely because of the color of our skin,” one acting sergeant, who is Black, wrote. “I am not aware of a similar situation where white officers were segregated from an inmate.”
Ramsey County jail superintendent Steve Lydon has pushed back against the accusations, claiming he only received short notice that Chauvin would be arriving and his decision was made as a way “to protect and support” corrections officers. “Recognizing that 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,” Lydon said in a statement. “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.” Lydon, who has since been demoted, said the reassignments were brief, but he realized he “had erred in judgment and issued an apology to the affected employees.”
Smith, however, characterized Lydon’s claim as an “after-the-fact justification,” noting that her clients “never asked for protection” and he did not explain it as an action taken out of concern for the officers until later. By “segregating them on the basis of skin color,” Lydon “isn’t preventing racial trauma—he is creating it,” Smith said.
The admission that officers were reassigned, albeit briefly, marked a change from officials who had earlier denied any officers of color had been reassigned. That allegation had led Reuters to publish a “fact check” article that said claims that Black officers had been “banned” from guarding Chauvin were false. That denial had angered the affected officers even more. “They were calling us all liars,” one said.