Minneapolis civil rights department being decimated from within

Happier days: In May, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak tapped Michael Jordan to run the city's civil rights department
courtesy of the Minneapolis mayor's office

On his final day as the director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, Michael K. Browne saw a bright future for the agency and its workers. As one of his last acts, he filled out an evaluation for Ingrid Tollefson, an employee in the complaint investigation unit who was on the cusp of finishing her one-year probationary period.

"She is a very hardworking, ethical and morally responsible attorney and continues to improve her performance with little to no supervision," Browne wrote on June 29. "During the probationary period, Ingrid has flourished and met or exceeded the quality and productivity standards for the Department."

Yet roughly two weeks after receiving this glowing report, Tollefson was unceremoniously fired by Browne's successor, Michael Jordan.

Tollefson's termination was the first salvo of a six-month civil war that has roiled the complaint investigation unit, which ironically is responsible for scrutinizing claims of civil rights violations such as employment discrimination. In December, three of the unit's remaining investigators resigned. Then a fourth probationary worker was fired by Jordan. The shakeup left just one employee in a unit with a backlog of more than 400 complaints.

The turmoil, first reported by WCCO-TV, is raising serious questions about Jordan's fledgling leadership of the agency. The director initially drew hostile attention earlier this year after five high-ranking black cops filed a federal lawsuit alleging a pattern of racial discrimination within the Minneapolis Police Department. The officers claim in the suit that they tried to take their concerns to Jordan, who is African American himself, but that he ignored them.

The controversy has some city officials calling for Jordan's ouster after just seven months at the helm. "I have lost confidence in his ability to do that job based on what I've seen coming out of that department," says 10th Ward City Council member Ralph Remington.

Eighth Ward council member Elizabeth Glidden has reached a similar conclusion. "It's fair to say that I don't have faith that he's the right person for the job, and I feel strongly that way," she says.

Jordan insists that the unit will continue to perform its duties despite the staffing shortage. He says that four contract workers have been brought onboard to staff the unit and that he's in the process of hiring permanent employees. "We will demonstrate our success," he says. "By summer of this year, when we've reconfigured our complaint investigation unit, we will be far more efficient."

Prior to Browne's tenure, the civil rights department had been plagued by dysfunction and incompetence for at least a decade. The complaint investigation unit, in particular, was notorious for failing to adequately investigate civil rights complaints, with cases languishing for upward of five years without resolution.

"In the past I would never refer someone to the Minneapolis civil rights department because it just seemed like a black hole," says civil rights attorney Eric Hageman. "People would go there and their cases would never emerge."

In 2004 Browne was hired by then-department head Jayne Khalifa to study how to fix the problem. Browne's report, completed in May 2005, painted a dismal portrait. He concluded that cases were haphazardly investigated and staff was poorly trained.

The insights suitably impressed Khalifa, who hired Browne to be the agency's deputy director and overhaul the unit. Over the ensuing months, Browne increased training, standardized the investigation process, hired additional staff, and set up an internship program with area law schools. "We knew we had this mountain of cases that were about to tumble on top of us," he recalls.

Then in May 2006, after Khalifa was tapped to be deputy city coordinator, Browne was named interim director of the civil rights department by Mayor R.T. Rybak. Local attorneys soon noticed a marked improvement in the quality of the department's work. The average length of time it took to close a case dropped from 26 to 21 months.

"The entire approach was more professional and thorough than it had ever been," says Hageman.

Members of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, the 20-member citizen body charged with overseeing the department, were so pleased that they recommended Browne be given the permanent post. "I was very satisfied with the job they were doing under Michael Browne," says Kenneth Brown, the commission's vice chair.

Browne initially applied for the permanent post, then removed his name from consideration in March of last year. He's circumspect about the reason. "I don't really have an answer for that," he says. "I originally was going to stay in the department. That didn't happen as planned."

Some commissioners and City Council members suspect Browne bowed out when it became clear that Rybak had no intention of naming him to the permanent post. They argue that the civil rights department had become a little too successful for City Hall's liking, especially when it came to upholding complaints of police misconduct.

"If you're going to do what you're supposed to do and not worry about the politics and the bullshit, then that's going to be a problem for some folks," says Civil Rights Commission Vice Chair Brown. "The department is set up to always fail."

With Browne out of the picture, Jordan was tapped to head the civil rights department in May. At the time, few questioned his pedigree: He had served as the commissioner of public safety under Gov. Arne Carlson and as public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department.

Browne, now working for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, declines to pass judgment on his successor. But he says that rebuilding an effective complaint investigation unit won't be easy.

"There was a lot of time and energy and money that was put into training those people, making sure that they had the skills that they needed to do the job," Browne says. "They lost that. That's the loss of institutional knowledge, and it will take some time to rebuild that."

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