The growing feud between the Minneapolis police union and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman intensified this week as dozens of officers wrapped up their testimony before a grand jury investigating the police killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond last summer.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said that Freeman was subpoenaing dozens of officers who were only tangentially involved in the case and threatening to hold them in contempt of court if they failed to cooperate. The move was in “extremely poor taste” and “ill-conceived,” and could potentially affect officers’ relationship with the County Attorney’s Office, Kroll said.
“They need to figure out whose side they’re on — law enforcement should work collectively with city and county attorneys to prosecute criminals,” Kroll said.
His comments are the latest development in an escalating feud between Freeman’s office and the union that represents the city’s roughly 900 cops.
Freeman scoffed at the notion that his office was treating officers unfairly, while saying that he didn’t want to get drawn into a public fight with the union.
“I’m a little disappointed — probably more than a little — about some of the pettiness that we’re hearing from the Police Federation,” Freeman said.
He said that his office started issuing subpoenas only after officers, acting on the union’s advice, turned down repeated requests to come in and provide statements.
“We tried again and again, and what they said was, ‘No, we’re not coming in.’ The Police Federation or its lawyers said, ‘No we shouldn’t,’ ” Freeman said. “I’ve been a prosecutor at least 19 years — this is the first time that I’ve ever had to subpoena police officers to tell us what they know.”
The officer at the center of the storm, Mohamed Noor, has refused to speak with state investigators, and declined to testify before the grand jury. His attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said Wednesday that he couldn’t comment on grand jury proceedings.
Matthew Harrity, Noor’s partner the night Damond was killed and the only other living witness, was twice called before the grand jury, according to his attorney. The death of the 40-year-old Australian put Minneapolis in the international spotlight, while reigniting a long-standing debate about police conduct, and led to the ouster of former Police Chief Janeé Harteau.
Awaiting significant ruling
Speaking at a community meeting this week, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that his hands were tied; even if he wanted to immediately fire an officer suspected of criminal acts, the union grievance process allows officers terminated for misconduct to petition to get their jobs back. He said that he was closely monitoring an appellate case from a fired Richfield officer, which observers see as a significant test of Minnesota’s decades-old system of using arbitrators to settle the labor disputes of public employees.
“I’m watching it with bated breath, because if they rule in favor of the chief in Richfield, it helps,” he said to the room of about 80 people at the Pershing Recreation Center. “We have employees that should not be wearing this uniform that are, because a third party weighed in.”
Kroll said the officers who initially declined to speak to Freeman’s office were not at the scene on the night of the shooting.
“Do they subpoena everybody in every other criminal case where they may know someone?” he said.
Kroll said the ongoing investigation of Noor was a political maneuver, designed to burnish Freeman’s image at a time when activists in Minneapolis and beyond are demanding greater accountability of police who use force.
“Freeman, for his résumé and re-election, feels that he needs to convict a cop or something, it’s trendy these days,” said Kroll. “It’s completely political.”
Among those called to testify were “[firing] range personnel, people in training, people who had trained Harrity, people who had no knowledge of who Noor was,” according to Kroll. The witnesses were grilled about Noor’s training and preparedness, Kroll told the Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper.
The last of the 40 or so officers called before the grand jury testified on Tuesday, Kroll said.
His comments fanned the flames of an already tense relationship between the union and Freeman’s office, after prosecutors charged a Minneapolis officer for shooting at a carful of clubgoers after mistaking it for suspects in a shooting. Earlier Thursday, a jury cleared the officer, Efrem Hamilton, of any criminal wrongdoing.
During the two-week trial, assistant Hennepin County attorney Tara Ferguson Lopez accused three of Hamilton’s colleagues of changing their testimony on the witness stand, while hiding behind a “blue wall of silence,” an insinuation that angered some in the department.
While the union has grown more publicly critical of Freeman for his handling of the case, it also came under fire shortly after the shooting for its reluctance to publicly defend Noor.
Freeman in January announced his intention to convene a grand jury in the case, reversing an earlier decision to end the decades-long practice of using the secretive civilian panels to investigate police shootings. Freeman on Wednesday reiterated that he, not the grand jury, would make the final decision about whether to charge Noor.
On Wednesday, Freeman said that he has no timetable for his decision.
Harrity, who has since returned to active duty, was called back before the grand jury a second time last week, his lawyer said.
Assistant Police Chief Mike Kjos said that the department intends to continue its “strong relationship” with the County Attorney’s Office, while recognizing “there will be difficult situations that challenge this bond.”
“The goal is to provide public safety while maintaining public trust and this can only be done by holding all parties involved in the criminal justice system accountable for their actions,” Kjos said in a statement.