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Hennepin Co. attorney: Grand juries in officer-involved shootings 'a mistake'

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman speaks at a news conference in late March 2016. (Jim Gehrz/Star Tribune via AP)

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said one of his biggest regrets as the county’s top prosecutor was using grand juries to investigate the shootings of civilians by police, admitting that the process lacked transparency.

Freeman’s comments came during an often raucous public forum on police-community relations Saturday evening that brought together residents and law enforcement officials for what organizers envisioned as a constructive dialogue between both sides. But the event ended abruptly about an hour after it began, when a Q&A session devolved into a shouting match.

“I made a mistake in the first 17 years of being a county attorney by using a grand jury” to investigate cop-involved shootings, Freeman said in response to an audience question about whether he has any regrets.

Freeman, whose decision earlier this year to discontinue the use of the secretive citizen panels in such shootings drew cautious praise from activists, added that the process shielded the public from many facts.

The session also was marked by a series of outbursts from the audience, including Clark's father, James Clark, who at one point shouted: "We're tired of having a bunch of lies and that's all we're hearing."

Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, police union President Lt. Bob Kroll, Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy Kellace McDaniel and Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, also took part in the panel discussion, at Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church on the city’s North Side.

Freeman denied that he had mishandled the case of Jamar Clark, who was killed during a confrontation with two Minneapolis cops outside a North Side apartment building last fall.

The two officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, were later cleared of any wrongdoing in separate state, federal internal investigations and are back on duty.

Freeman, who was repeatedly interrupted as he spoke, said Saturday that he felt “terrible” about Clark’s death — which set off weeks of furious protests and fueled a fierce national debate about police treatment of blacks — but defended his decision not to charge the officers.

Clark’s family members have said they plan to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city, contending that Clark’s shooting could have been averted.

Arradondo, a lifelong North Sider, said that the department has sought to come to grips with law enforcement’s troubled history of abuses against minorities, citing the example of a police chief who refused to intervene when a white mob lynched three black men outside a Duluth police station in 1920, famously saying: “I do not want to see the blood of one white person spilled for six blacks.”

"We have to respect that this badge has not always been representative of" justice for people of color," Arradondo told the audience.

Organizers said they hoped the meeting would help repair relationships between police and the community, particularly the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of north Minneapolis.

But the event, which was scheduled to run until 6:15 p.m., ended about an hour early, as the crowd grew increasingly agitated and accused the panelists of dodging tough questions.

Park improvement postponement hits close to home for Miller

Well, at least you can't accuse park Superintendent Jayne Miller of playing favorites with the park where she lives.

Her proposed capital budget for 2017 recommends that the long-delayed Lyndale Farmstead recreation center repairs be postponed yet another year. That's the park that includes the superintendent's house.

That would be the fourth postponement of the project.

The park building needs were first addressed in the five-year capital program presented in 2010, with Farmstead scheduled for work in 2013. The project was moved to 2015 a year later, and starting with the 2015 budget, it's been delayed twice more, making her 2017 recommendation a potential fourth delay.

After some strong pushback from area Commissioner Brad Bourn, Miller said she'd take another look through her proposed budget to see if the project could be salvaged for 2017.

"It is a very high priority in our neighborhood," said Melissa Gould, president of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association.

The needs of the building don't differ much from other park buildings built some 40 years ago. The 1997 building needs a new roof, acessibility improvements, air conditioning and other work. The list of accessibility imprrvements is part of a system-wide evaluation. It found multiple needs ranging from doors that require too much force to open to soap dispensers that need to be lowered. The neighborhood association was advised by City Hall to shift its meetings to the more accessible Walker Methodist senior complex, according to board member Brian Nalezny.  But the Park Board still sponsors open houses on park projects in the building.

Like other buildings around the system, the Farmstead project has been delayed over the years because the Park Board was short on repair and rehabilitation money. But that was supposed to be eased with the approval last spring of a deal between the Park Board and City Hall that is intended to infuse money to repair or renovate deteriorating buildings and fields across the park system over the next 20 years.

But under the equity-based criteria that help which parks get attention first, parks in better-off areas of the city fall well down the scheduling list. Lyndale Farmstead rated 73rd on a list of 106 neighborhood parks for that money. Under Miller's proposal for a one-year delay, it would rise up the list to where that money could be tapped. 

Another reason that the project is proposed to be delayed is that there were cost overruns at nearby Bryant Square park, where complications resulting from the rebuilding of the wading pool cost more than expected and bids were high due to timing.

According to Miller, past protocol is for for cost overruns in a commissioner district to be handled by adjustments in the same district.