During his six years as St. Louis County attorney, Mark Rubin passed on grand jury proceedings for seven police-involved shootings in his northern Minnesota jurisdiction.
It was a tough decision, he said. But in the end, Rubin was assured that his senior staff members were best suited to review evidence and apply complex legal standards to investigations. In each case, like so many others, his office found the shootings were justified.
While he agrees with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's newly announced policy to do away with grand juries in police-involved shootings, other prosecutor colleagues want to reserve the right to use the secretive proceedings on a case-by-case basis. As for law enforcement authorities, at least one top Minnesota police officers' group prefers that an elected, political authority defer to grand juries for such highly scrutinized cases, such as the death of Jamar Clark.
"We weren't shocked by Freeman's decision, because there had been rumbling that it would be his intent immediately following the controversial incident," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "It's within his right, but we're disappointed because it's such a major departure. The grand jury process is fairer for all parties involved."
For months, Freeman has said he would take Clark's case to a grand jury. Clark, 24, who was black, was shot during an altercation with two white Minneapolis police officers on Nov. 15. He died the next day. On Wednesday, Freeman said his staff is going to review the case and make a charging decision by the end of the month.
Freeman had discussed the potential change for 16 months with local and national attorneys, including Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput. While they said they respect Freeman's decision, the attorneys will continue to send police shootings to a grand jury.
"I need the flexibility and value having community members determine if an officer acted appropriately," Palumbo said. "The metro-county attorneys are having conversations about this subject."
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom was attending a national district attorneys conference in Arizona on Thursday morning when he learned that Burnsville police fatally shot a man who allegedly was brandishing a weapon in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant. Since 1990, his county has had a policy to send every death resulting from deadly force to a grand jury.
"The topic of grand juries was discussed at the conference today," said Backstrom, who has been county attorney for 29 years. "I remain open to consider the views of my colleagues. But right now, the policy is in writing and has been supported by all law enforcement in the county."
Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar didn't convene a grand jury for two police fatalities he reviewed and doesn't expect that he will change his strategy.
In nearby Carver County, Mark Metz hasn't had to decide which route he would take. He knows he would face criticism either way.
Metz described a hypothetical case that shows the potential conflict county attorneys might face because they have two choices when reviewing police cases. What if the attorney reviews a case and determines there isn't probable cause to charge an officer? But he sends it to the grand jury and they come back with an indictment. "Do I dismiss the indictment and get criticized by the public? Ethically, the officer shouldn't be charged," he said.
The use of grand juries will continue to be on the front burner of legal and law enforcement groups, said Bob Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. His board is meeting Friday and "this may be a top of discussion," he said.
Because of the closer scrutiny of police-involved shootings, law enforcement authorities and the criminal justice system will be taking a closer look at how grand juries have worked in the past and ways they might work in the future, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
To his point, activists from the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar held a news conference Thursday. They said Freeman's decision was a step in the right direction, but would like to see the two officers involved in Clark's case be prosecuted.
Those critical of the grand jury process may be targeting the wrong people to address their concerns, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. Laws passed by the Legislature offer lots of protections for officers who use deadly force reasonably, Choi said.
Like Freeman's office, Ramsey County has used grand juries for decades. But Choi has taken strides in recent cases to make more information public.
"I've come to believe that the grand jury process can be improved, but haven't come to the conclusion Mike [Freeman] has," he said. "I struggle with these issues. But trust and confidence are critical aspects that need to be maintained by the chief elected prosecutor."