‘Interim’ Minneapolis Civil Rights director seeks permanent reforms

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Michael “Kip” Browne continues to lead the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) as its interim director beyond the original three-month term of his appointment this spring. As to why his term has been extended, no clear answer has been provided.

The fact that there are also three other City departments currently in interim status may be cause for maintaining stability at CCR, but getting to know Browne may offer an even better explanation for his retention. He may be young, but Browne’s passion for human rights and his legal expertise have shaped the reputation of a man with a vision to bring the department up to its full potential.

Browne was first hired by his friend and mentor Jayne Khalifa, the former Civil Rights director currently serving as deputy city coordinator. “As I did the work, one of the things we found out was that my [management style] and skill set were very complementary to Jayne’s,” Browne said. “I was bringing things to the table that would help to turn the department around.” The call to help reform the department was a challenge that he was prepared to take on.

Browne was born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, and graduated from John Marshall Senior High School. He then continued his education at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, where he majored in Spanish and double-minored in education and philosophy. “I have a passion for culture and language arts,” he said.

As a college student, Browne took advantage of opportunities to study abroad. He received a grant from the university’s Office of Minority Affairs for a trip to Puerto Rico the summer after his junior year. After that, he headed to Spain for the first seven months of his senior year. “I came back from my international travels to Spain and Puerto Rico with a sense of ‘I’m American,’” he admitted. This point of awareness instilled a curiosity in him for more international perspective on exactly what being American meant.

Browne’s study of Latin and Spanish helped him get a job as an interpreter for the Mayo Clinic right out of college. “I loved translation, because I enjoyed meeting and interacting with many different people.” In thinking about other career possibilities, Browne became interested in law. He was accepted into both Hamline Law School and William Mitchell.

“Originally, I wanted to address international issues…looking at what’s going on [internationally] and how it affects what’s happening here. Then I came across human rights. I became engrossed in criminal law, and this became the area where I would do a lot of work,” he said.

His first job after graduating from Hamline Law School was in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office. “This kicked off my legal writing career,” he said. Browne’s “legal memo skills” prompted him to write in the Hamline Law Review. “Loitering Laws in Minneapolis” (1998 Hamline Law Review) was his first publication. “People tend to forget that a law degree is really a liberal arts degree. I was able to tie in psychology and philosophy from undergrad,” he explained.

Browne speaks highly of his graduate education at Hamline. “My law school experience was some of my best educational experience; that’s why I always try to give back to Hamline.” He added, “I remember participating in mock trials [as a] member of the Frederick Douglas court team at Hamline — it has so many wonderful opportunities.”

Along with his stellar education, Browne also gives a lot of credit to mentors who helped enhance his professional career in law and human rights. “Mentor number one was Judge LaJune Thomas Lange. She was my first mentor in law. I met her while at the public defender’s office.

“I was the judicial clerk under Judge Lange. She opened my mind to international issues and how they relate to me and my international background. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for her,” he said.

He continued to emphasize Judge Lange’s influence: “She was fair. My current role is ‘quasi-judicial’ in the sense that I determine whether there is probable cause that a case is discriminatory. She instilled this notion that justice is about being fair…justice is blind. Sitting next to Judge Lange gave me a different perspective of the court… My first court experience was sitting on the bench next to Judge Lange… It modeled my way of seeing issues,” he said.

Browne passed the bar on his first attempt. “Receiving my license meant that I had to go on and do the right thing. I wanted a variety of experiences. I was looking for my niche.” He found a place that would allow him to use his criminal law background as well as his Spanish skills: Centro Legal.

Centro Legal is a nonprofit law firm in St. Paul that serves mainly Spanish-speaking people and mostly new arrivals. “It was truly doing God’s work,” he said. As a sobreviver (to survive) attorney, he resented references to his work as “poverty law.” The fact that he was not making much money in this position was not the most important factor to him — it was all about the issues.

“The experience was extremely rewarding,” he said. “It was the kind of job where you get up in the morning and you would run in there and do it because you knew you were going to help someone.”

Because of this work, he was offered a position at the law offices of Blackwell-Igbanugo. Under the guidance of mentor Kenny W. Saffold, Browne worked exclusively in the Office of the Monitor, which was formed from the 1999 consent decree of Pigford vs. Glickman (U.S. Department of Agriculture).

In this case, a black farmer filed a class-action lawsuit against the USDA after being denied a loan, causing him to lose his farm. According to an editorial by the Cincinnati Inquirer, this represents a history of black farmers being denied their promised “40 acres and a mule.”

“Thousands of black farmers say they were left out of a landmark 1999 civil rights case stemming from years of being denied farm loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said Browne. “Without loans, many farmers faced foreclosure or lost their farms. In 1920, an African American owned one in seven farms. Today, that number is one in 100. I was [instrumental] in helping the Office of the Monitor form a way in which [those] decisions were written.”

Browne returned home once again to work for the Rochester Public Defender’s Office (3rd Judical District). This experience working in his hometown provided a keen sense of familiarity for Browne. He had now come full circle: “I was in court every day, and I was [dealing] with people on a professional level that remembered me as a child,” he said.

Of all of his experiences as a professional, licensed lawyer, perhaps the greatest was his experience as a Robert Bosch Fellow in Germany. “That [experience] was phenomenal. There were 20 young, professional Americans doing their [work] in Germany, partnered with their European counterparts who worked and studied in America,” he said. Bosch was the inventor of the sparkplug, among other things, and was known for having the same kind of German-American relationship throughout his career.

“The program gives you a wider perspective of the world and what you’re doing. We were charged to bring [perspective] back to America.,” he said. Browne had found the opportunity he was looking for to broaden his own international perspective.

Browne worked for a year and a half in the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office. Learning German in the process, he also completed a review on police brutality and what we can learn from Germany. His review references Germany’s community policing environment as it has transitioned from a police state in the midst of segmented Germany, and currently as a unified nation.

What do Germans do that’s different in America? “Germany actually prosecutes their police officers if there is an offense,” Browne cites from his review (2004 Hamline Law Review). Unbeknownst to him, this work would set the foundation for his future job in the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department.

Just when Browne began to embark on his own law practice with the help of mentor Albert T. Goins, he met Jayne Khalifa, who had recently been appointed by Mayor R.T. Rybak as director of the Minneapolis CCR. “She was interested in my international exposure and knowledge, and was particularly impressed by the police review.” Browne was interested in doing more writing and review, so he was thrilled when he was hired as a consultant in November 2004.

Browne was responsible for evaluating the Complaint Investigations Unit (CIU), the Civilian Review Authority (CRA) — now under the direction of Lee Reid — and coordinating community outreach initiatives by creating relationships with law students to help with the backlog of cases.

“One of the major complaints is that it takes a long time [to get a response] when you file a complaint… It won’t anymore, but it used to,” he said. As Khalifa issued his first assignment, Browne already had the law school program up and running and was working on the CIU report (published May 2005). He was then hired as director of enforcement and community outreach in September 2005.

Browne was officially named interim director by Mayor Rybak subsequent to submitting the CRA report (published February 2006), taking over the department on May 15, 2006. He is now classified as a Hamline Law School mentor who will administer a Civil Rights practicum, beginning in fall 2007, where law students can receive three credits.

Next week: Browne’s immediate goals for the Civil Rights Department and his plan of action.

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