Criticism and protests have followed Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for years, from the lobby of the county courthouse to his news conferences, which have been overtaken by demonstrators on occasion.
But when George Floyd was fatally pinned under three Minneapolis police officers last May 25, the public outcry reached fever pitch and landed at his doorstep. Protesters gathered several times in groups of hundreds to more than a thousand outside Freeman's south Minneapolis home to criticize what they felt was a pro-police response to Floyd's killing and a pattern of inaction on police killing civilians.
"There has to be political pressure," said Sam Martinez, an organizer with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, one of many groups that participated in protests outside Freeman's house. " … Mike Freeman represented … that continual miscarriage of justice in a system that really doesn't want to give [justice] to us."
Freeman's office charged former officer Derek Chauvin in the case on May 29 before the state Attorney General's Office quickly took over the prosecution. Freeman's office is assisting.
The public criticism, which also came from many others via e-mails, phone calls and social media messages and postings, prompted the county to spend about $19,000 in salary and overtime costs for sheriff's deputies to provide security for Freeman between May 27 and early June. Freeman put his house up for sale in July and sold it for less than what he paid 13 years earlier.
The county shelled out another $9,385 to a private firm to conduct a safety assessment for an assistant county attorney involved in the case, according to the county attorney's office and financial records obtained by the Star Tribune.
"They did a security review to make sure everything this person did was as safe as could be — anything that would expose them to potential danger as they go through their normal routines," county attorney spokesman Chuck Laszewski.
Laszewski said the county attorney's office received "credible threats." Freeman declined to comment, and his office declined to provide more details because of its role in prosecuting Chauvin and former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao in Floyd's death.
Chauvin is on trial on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His three co-defendants were charged on June 3 and will be tried in one trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. All four, who were fired, are out on bond.
Hennepin County Sheriff's spokesman Andy Skoogman said the sheriff has no open or closed cases regarding threats made to Freeman or his office.
The backlash was like nothing Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, a former assistant Hennepin County attorney, had seen before.
"I've never seen this in my entire life," Orput said. "[Freeman] got vilified, and I think people get angry and they look for a target … and social media's changed the landscape."
Freeman's office received nearly 4 million e-mails and 29,000 voice mails about the case, most of them in the first two weeks after Floyd was killed. Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker was also publicly criticized for ruling Floyd's cause of death cardiopulmonary arrest; attorneys for Floyd's family and many others disputed the findings and said Floyd died of asphyxiation from Chauvin kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said some critics went too far.
"You can vote that person out of office if you don't like what they did, but to personalize it in this way and threaten the quality of life and safety of the elected official's family is really inexcusable," Gaertner said. "I hope it's not the norm" moving forward.
Many messages to the county attorney's office implored Freeman to take swift action and charge the officers involved.
"The entire world is watching your office today," said one message sent the day after Floyd died. "Do the right thing. Prosecute Derek Chauvin."
"Arrest and prosecute the men who murdered George Floyd. Right now. Immediately," said a message sent two days after the incident. "Your historical callousness to justice for people of color has been horrendous. You could now, right now, start to change. Do it now. Not tomorrow. Now."
Some were more strongly worded.
"What is wrong with you?" someone messaged on May 28 before charges were filed against anyone. "A man was killed and you're just sitting there watching … Have you no shame! Utterly disgusted by you animals!"
"When are you [expletive] gonna file some charges?" another wrote on the 28th.
"You are horrible people," someone wrote.
The county attorney's office responded to one message on May 27: "I am sorry you didn't get through. Our office phone system has been overwhelmed [by] people calling from around the country and we cannot keep up. We hear your concern and your demand."
In the wake of Floyd's death activists created the group, Recall Freeman, and launched a campaign to collect 126,522 signatures in an effort to force him out of office. About 16,000 signatures have been collected.
Activists were particularly disturbed by comments Freeman made at a May 28 news conference, specifically when he said, "There is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge."
Freeman's office later issued a statement saying the remarks had been misinterpreted, and that he had intended to say it was critical to review all evidence and that some may not be favorable to the prosecution's case.
"Mike Freeman acts as a defense attorney for the police," said Kathleen Cole, an organizer with Recall Freeman. "He takes what they say at face value and even when the claims they are making are pretty absurd-sounding. In this case, people could see what really happened and so his continued defense of the police and unwillingness to prosecute them appropriately was especially upsetting."
Recall Freeman did not organize protests outside his home, but was present on occasion to take signatures, which must be collected in person.
"For many years there has been outcry about how his office refuses to hold the Minneapolis Police Department accountable," Cole said. "And nothing that people have done so far has been able to get them to be willing to hold police accountable, and if he had been responsive to people protesting in his office … perhaps people would not have felt like they needed to escalate."
Freeman's office has charged Minneapolis police officers in two civilian deaths — Floyd and the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond by Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Activists say he has failed to charge too many other officers, particularly in the killings of Black men such as Jamar Clark, who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police in 2015.
"Mike Freeman kind of represents where things were stopping in the system," Martinez said.
Freeman's office declined to comment on the timing and whether the protests were a factor, but in July Freeman listed his home for sale at $749,000. The price steadily dropped until the house, which sustained damages over the year, sold in late December for $600,000, according to online real estate listings. Freeman and his wife purchased it in 2007 for $629,900.
The house was valued this January at $826,000, according to the Minneapolis City Assessor's office, which was aware of the reported sale but had not officially recorded it as of early March due to common lag times in receiving such information.
Many protesters viewed Freeman's move as a win.
"They run a political campaign; we run a political campaign," Martinez said. "We saw it as a big victory. There was a party."
The scrutiny is far from over. Recall Freeman activists plan to spread their message to the suburbs this summer to reach Freeman's strongest voting base. The group will collect signatures and also educate voters on criminal justice reform.
"This will be new for us this summer, and it's very exciting," Cole said. "We have to talk with folks in the suburbs and make sure that they understand both the costs of Mike Freeman's policies but also the possibility for something else."
Freeman's term ends in 2022. Laszewski said Freeman has not decided whether he will run for re-election "because the election is still eighteen months away and all of his attention is on the Derek Chauvin trial."