Outgoing Hennepin County attorney reflects on six terms

Photo by Charles Hallman Mike Freeman

After spending nearly a third of his adult life in public service, first as a Minnesota state legislator, then in a total of six terms in two separate stints as Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman will retire in January.

Sitting recently in his office, Freeman told the MSR, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It’s bittersweet for me. I love this job. I’m just not a spring chicken anymore. And there’s also time for a fresh face and some newness, and I want to go out on my terms.”

Freeman was first elected as county attorney from 1991-1999, then ran again for the post in 2006 and was reelected in 2007. He oversees a 400-plus staff, including nearly 200 attorneys in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (HCAO). During his tenure, Freeman has advocated for refining marijuana laws, more studies to better understand racial disparities, and helping domestic violence victims, among other things.

However, Freeman also is known for several high-profile police shootings of Blacks, several of which never produced any charges. This put him in the crosshairs of activists and critics who cried racism, resulting in a divide between his office and the Black community.

In his September 2021 released statement announcing he will not seek reelection in 2022, Freeman listed accomplishments he is proud of, but offered some regrets as well. 

He noted his deep disappointment that no charges have yet been filed against whoever shot and killed three-year-old Terrell Mayes in December 2011, or in the killing of six-year-old Aniya Allen and the critical wounding of 10-year-old Ladavionne Garrett, Jr. in 2021. “Our efforts must never cease to stop this senseless killing of children,” he stressed.

But Freeman, during our nearly one-hour interview, discussed at length his reason for why the HCAO didn’t charge the Minneapolis police officers involved in the killing of Jamar Clark. The 24-year-old Clark was fatally shot on the city’s Northside in 2015, and its aftermath led to nearly a month’s occupation outside the Fourth Precinct station in protest. 

“One of the toughest decisions I made,” he admitted of the issue he believed led many Blacks to distrust him and his office. “On those police shooting cases,” he explained, “the question is, ‘Did the police commit a criminal act?’”

The Clark killing “was a very hard decision. But it wasn’t criminal,” Freeman contended. “And a lot of people distrusted me for that. I said that’s one of the cases I really regret because it did help to poison relationships with some people in the Black community, and that wasn’t good for everyone.

“I don’t think that decision was wrong,” Freeman continued, “but the decision has to be viewed in [light of] did they commit a criminal act, and I think the answer is no.”

Fast forward several years later when Freeman’s office teamed up with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to successfully prosecute former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd in 2020.

“I asked him to join with me,” Freeman said of Ellison, the state’s first Black AG. “It was an honor to work with Keith. He’s a very interesting man. He knows criminal justice and he knows trials, and he’s a very decent human being. I am honored with my partnership with Keith.”

Freeman also pointed out with pride that HCAO charged a police officer for killing a civilian while driving. Leneal Frazier was killed while driving home after Minneapolis police crashed into his vehicle while chasing a carjacked vehicle. Frazier was the uncle of Darnella Frazier, who filmed city police officers killing Floyd.

“That’s the first case that I’m aware of in Minnesota that a police officer in the line of duty has been charged with manslaughter for disregarding public safety and driving their car in a chase,” he noted. “I think it’s justified. My only disappointment is that [the trial] is supposed to go to trial in November and now it’s been put off until April [of next year] because the defense attorney is not available.”

Freeman continued, “One of the things I’m most proud about is when I arrived here, there were three or four lawyers of color. “Today 30% is BIPOC. We’ve hired lots of Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos. I’m pleased with that.

“We can never do enough” in improving diversity in HCAO, added the retiring county attorney. “The communities [are] entitled to have the constituency. This office [should] reflect our community, and when you got 30%, you’re getting there.”

Freeman also is proud of two initiatives: HEALS 2.0, a public-private partnership started in January 2022 that brought together members of the local faith community, business leaders, law enforcement, and others to address the increase in carjackings and violent crime; and Operation Endeavor, led by Dr. Cedric Alexander, the city’s first community public safety commissioner. That initiative has an HCAO senior attorney embedded to help law enforcement in clearing cases, bringing better cases for prosecution, and helping reduce complaints against law enforcement.

“The cases [the Minneapolis police] were giving us weren’t as good as they used to be,’ said Freeman, briefly explaining the reason for HEALS 2.0. “The principle really is pretty basic. It’s partnerships—cops can’t do it by themselves or cops and prosecutors can’t do it by themselves.  We need the community… We need some of the unique strengths in this area.”

On Operation Endeavor, “Cedric Alexander is a real thing. I think Alexander is going to help with public safety,” Freeman said.

Mary Moriarty will assume the Hennepin County top attorney’s job in January. She is a former county chief public defender and defeated former Hennepin County judge Martha Holton Dimick.

Moriarty will inherit a “really, really good public law office,” Freeman stressed. “They’re committed to justice… We made mistakes, including me, but we acknowledge those mistakes.

“Each county attorney has policy decisions that they need to make,” he said of Moriarty. “She needs to recognize [that], and I think she does.”

Finally, after a half-century of public work, the 74-year-old Freeman said of retirement, “I’m not going to make a commitment to do anything, particularly until after Labor Day.”

Look for an interview with the newly elected Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty in the upcoming editions of the MSR.

Have an opinion? Share it below.