County Attorney debate probed volatile issues

Mike Freeman Mark Hasse
Mike Freeman and Mark Hasse Photos by Sunshine Joy Hedlund

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Black Votes Matter MN (BVMM) founder Anika Robbins at last week’s Hennepin County Attorney debate. BVMM is a local nonpartisan voter engagement effort to increase voter and civic participation amongst Blacks.

“Our community is the most impacted by the criminal justice system,” Robbins said about bringing a debate between incumbent Mike Freeman and challenger Mark Haase to the African American community. “We’re dealing with the disparity in incarceration. So, it was important the candidates share their vision with us.”

BVMM sponsored the evening at the Minneapolis Urban League, hosted by Robbins and activist Bill English and moderated by former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

The tone of the debate was cordial, forgoing confrontation. Each cited stats and data supporting how he would work against racial discrimination in Minneapolis Police Department law enforcement and Hennepin County the criminal justice system for Hennepin. Despite the potential volatility of the subjects involved, Freeman and Haase politely exchanged perspectives in a conversational fashion.

“A lot of disparities,” Haase acknowledged, “are created by how the law is enforced by police. There are things a prosecutor should consider in deciding whether or not to charge. Blacks are six times more likely to be charged with marijuana offenses in Hennepin County than Whites. It’s the prosecutor’s responsibility to adjust charging accordingly.”

He cited a recent newspaper article reporting that undercover Minneapolis Police Department officers had solicited $20 sales, then arrested the sellers. “The County Attorney’s Office prosecuted those cases. I’m going to move away from prosecuting marijuana and publicly advocate for legalization partly because of the disparities.”

Mike Freeman stated his office had been unaware of the sting operations Haase described. “We didn’t know about it. The [MPD] didn’t share the information, and those cases came in over a three-month period along with a thousand other cases. It was not clear what Minneapolis police were up to. We diverted some of it [as an alternative to criminal charges] and, when we reviewed the rest, we dismissed them all.”

He added, “It’s a system issue. I’ve spent five years at the legislature trying to make changes in the drug laws, particularly marijuana. What we accomplished was about half a loaf. What we did was reduce sentences for possession for small amounts. The problem is they didn’t finish the job, because there are still some of these sentencing and charging levels that are too high. We need to go back to the legislature.”

Sharon Sayles Belton Photos by Sunshine Joy Hedlund

Police accountability remains a sensitive subject, raising controversial cases that have fostered alarm and protest over officer-involved killings. Sayles Belton addressed Mike Freeman, saying, “Your office has been reluctant to charge police officers except in rare occasions. There is one such case that involved [Minneapolis Police Department Officer] Mohamed Noor. I really want you to talk about, if you would, why it might seem to the public that the decision to charge may be based on the race of the victim and color of the police officer. How did you make the decision to charge in that case?”

“The alleged perpetrator’s race or of the officer or victim has nothing to do with our charging decision,” answered Freeman in disagreement. “We try to view each case based on the evidence the investigation shows and whether it meets the police standard.”

He went on to cite several examples of officer prosecutions. “We charged Officer [Christopher Michael] Reiter with assault for kicking people in the face,” said Freeman. “He was convicted and is in prison.

“We charged Officer [Thomas] Tichich with sexual assault. He was convicted by a jury. He’s in prison. We have charged and convicted nine Minneapolis police officers in the last six years. I’ve had, in the recent past, three very difficult officer-involved cases in which people were killed by the officer. Each one of those cases is a tragedy.

“In two of the cases, the evidence, after a great deal of investigation, did not support the criminal charge [that] the police officer violated their duty to use deadly force when they fear for their lives or the lives of others.”

Freeman went on to explain the Noor charges. “In the case [of] Mohamed Noor, when he recklessly shot Justine Damond, we charged Officer Noor not only with manslaughter, but murder — the first Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in at least the last 40 years.

“I took that decision away from the grand jury because I felt people didn’t trust them. I did that after studying grand juries around the country and talking with many people in the community. I made those decisions. I spent 33 hours reviewing Jamar Clark facts alone. All the information we used to make that charging decision is on our website, and it’s the most transparent process in police officer shootings that I’m aware of in the United States.”

Haase, however, said charging decisions should not come from one person. “I want to create a police charging advisory panel who would advise me on [charging decisions],” said Haase.

“That would eliminate any bias the office might have, because we all have biases. I would try to make that panel representative of the community.”

Sayles Belton was pleased with the debate’s outcome. “The public turnout was extraordinarily high,” she said. “I enjoyed seeing a cross-section in the audience, young people [as well as] people who have historically voted in our community. The engagement was real positive.”

“It’s [vital we] get involved and engaged, even after the election,” added Robbins. “Because decisions are made after the election — about us, without us.”

For more information on Black Votes Matter MN and its election efforts, visit blackvotesmattermn.com.