(FOX 9) - On a recent Saturday afternoon, Brooke Blakey was volunteering at North Commons Park with Seeds to Harvest, a coalition of nonprofits teaching kids what it means to give back to their community.
But Blakey never imagined her own efforts at giving back would cost her so much.
It was at such an event a year ago, that her career with the Metro Transit Police Department was derailed by allegations she received a laptop for her daughter intended for underprivileged youth, in violation of the Metro Transit’s ban on accepting gifts.
After an internal affairs investigation, Blakey, a captain and chief of staff for Metro Transit Police, was demoted to officer.
It was a stunning reversal of fortune for an African American woman who had become a trailblazer in law enforcement.
"To be attacked, for people to say I stole or took something from an organization, is totally untrue," Blakey told FOX 9 in her first interview about the episode.
In February, two months after returning to work from administrative leave as an officer, Blakey resigned from Metro Transit.
Later that month, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter appointed her to be the city’s first Director of Neighborhood Safety.
A year wait for public records
After nearly a year of public records requests, on Friday Metro Transit provided the FOX 9 Investigators with the internal affairs investigation on the incident with Blakey and the laptop.
Metro Transit attorneys had declined to release the investigative file because Blakey resigned while the union was grieving her discipline.
Under Minnesota Data Practices, discipline is only public once it is sustained and final.
A Department of Administration opinion released last week determined the records are public because the union did not seek arbitration in time.
Back in blue
Law enforcement runs in her blood. Blakey’s late father, Art, was the longtime chief of police for the Minnesota State Fair.
In 2014, his daughter, Brooke, would become the first African American woman to join the Metro Transit Police Department.
In seven years, Blakey worked her way up to captain and became chief of staff to Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell.
Laptops for kids
But Blakey’s meteoric rise was cut short last year at a Seeds to Harvest event on Aug. 21 last year at the North Side YMCA.
Comcast had donated 100 Dell laptops and backpacks to kids who had participated in the program, including Blakey’s own daughter. The laptops were worth about $250 each.
The laptops were worth at least $250 each, according to the internal affairs investigation which said Dell laptop costs range from $300 to $2,500.
Blakey, who led Metro Transit’s Homeless Action Team, spearheaded the department’s participation in Seeds to Harvest to build bridges between police and the community after the murder of George Floyd.
Another Metro Transit Police officer, Sgt. Sidney Jones, was also present at the event and accepted a laptop for his son, who was not present at the event.
Blakey was off duty at the event, however, she was wearing her uniform and representing Metro Transit Police, according to the internal affairs report.
Jones was at the event while working an overtime shift.
An anonymous complaint
But someone at the event, Blakey believes it was another Metro Transit Police officer, made an anonymous complaint that Blakey and Jones accepted laptops intended for "underprivileged North Minneapolis kids."
Three days after the event, Metro Transit put Capt. Blakey and Sgt. Jones on administrative leave and hired an outside investigator.
The investigation found Blakey and Jones violated the department’s code of conduct and ethics rules forbidding acceptance of gifts or favors by taking laptops intended "to benefit underprivileged northside kids," when neither lived on the north side.
Metro Transit Police Department’s Policy Manual prohibits "The receipt or acceptance of a reward, fee, or gift from any person for service incident to the performance of the member’s duties."
Metro Transit officers are also subject to the Metropolitan Council’s code of ethics, which says employees in their official duties "shall not directly or indirectly receive or agree to receive any payment of expense, compensation, gift, reward, gratuity, favor, service … for any activities related to the duties of the employee …"
The policies do not explicitly address gifts to family members.
But the Metro Transit investigation determined Blakey indirectly received a gift when her daughter received the laptop.
Blakey and Jones both contend the laptops were a reward for their children participating in the program and not to them individually.
Both laptops were returned to Metro Transit.
Blakey was also disciplined for using a department issued take home SUV equipped with lights and siren on a personal trip to a Walmart in Eagan on July 11, 2021, in violation of department policy.
In December, Chief Frizell demoted Blakey from captain and chief of staff, the No. 2 person on the force, all the way down to officer. Sgt. Jones was suspended for a month and demoted to officer.
In a letter informing Blakey of the discipline, Frizell wrote, "Your actions surrounding these incidents leave me disappointed in your behavior."
Sgt. Sidney Jones was suspended for a month and demoted to officer.
The internal affairs investigation into Jones showed he was repeatedly encouraged by organizers to get a laptop for his son, who was not present at the event but had planned on participating in the future.
Jones told investigators he could see there were more backpacks than kids, and a woman organizing the event told him, "We need as many kids as we can get, sign him up for the program."
In a recent phone interview, Jones, who is still an officer with Metro Transit Police, told the FOX 9 Investigators the allegations "hurt me to my core" and "put my name and integrity in jeopardy."
A ‘hatchet job’
Blakey denies the characterization of the program as exclusively serving "underprivileged kids" and so does Seeds to Harvest.
"It was for all youth," Blakey said.
"The northside gets a bad rap of lumping kids together, saying you need to be underserved, needy, or underprivileged. I think that’s a stigma that gets put on them," Blakey said.
Brett Buckner, co-chair of Seeds to Harvest and managing director of OneMN, said investigators "never reached out to them."
While the laptops were meant to "bridge the digital divide," the program and laptops were for kids of "all economic and social strata" who participated, Buckner said.
Buckner called the investigation into Blakey and Jones "a hatchet job."
Kids and a class divide
A recent study supports the approach of integrating kids from all economic and social backgrounds.
A study published in Nature last week found cross-class relationships increase ‘economic connectedness’ among young people.
Those peer connections are more critical in easing the class divide than other factors, the study found, including quality of schools, family structure, job availability, or a community’s racial demographics.
Accusations of racism and sexism in the ranks
Blakey believes racism and other circumstances last fall played a role in the investigation and her demotion.
"My character was basically assassinated. The purpose was to soil my name and make it difficult for other opportunities to be present," Blakey said.
Blakey said its common to encounter "racism and sexism as your rise in the ranks and it’s very frustrating."
At the time, Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell, who is also African American, was waiting to be confirmed as Minnesota’s U.S. Marshal.
Blakey had considered applying for the Metro Transit Police chief’s job.
"I told Eddie Frizell directly, ‘What are you doing? She doesn’t deserve this?’" said Blakey’s attorney, A.L. Brown.
"He was covering his own butt," Brown said.
"He was on his way to the U.S. Marshal’s Office, and Blakey was a casualty of his interest in self-promotion," Brown said.
"They didn’t want a woman on top. They wanted to make sure that when Chief Frizell is on his way out that she was ineligible to apply," Brown continued.
Frizell did not respond to a request for comment made through a spokesperson at the U.S. Marshals Office.
Despite what happened a year ago, Blakey and her daughter are still volunteering with Seeds to Harvest, but she no longer appears in a police officer’s uniform.
Blakey, who has a background in child psychology and social work, said she believes the work of connecting kids to their communities is too important to stop.