Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Friday he is taking a medical leave after he was reportedly seen acting erratically at a crime prevention meeting in north Minneapolis the night before.
Friday's surprise announcement comes a little more than a week after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond two summers ago, seen as a major victory for Freeman's office.
Multiple sources at City Hall and police headquarters say Freeman had acted strangely at a meeting at the Urban League's North Side location Thursday night. Freeman and other top law enforcement officials, including Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald, were in attendance at a meeting of Project L.I.F.E., an intervention program for gang members looking to get out of the street life.
Freeman's office, contacted by the Star Tribune about the reports, released the statement two hours later.
"After my physical on Wednesday, my doctor and others have suggested that I need some time away from the high stress of running the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in order to restore my physical well-being," Freeman said in the statement released through his spokesman. "I fully expect to return stronger and sharper and able to guide this office in its mission to protect the public safety and provide justice."
The statement said he would not comment further.
Three sources said that Freeman struck a boastful tone throughout the evening, telling the audience of gang members, police, lawyers and residents that he wasn't afraid to charge anyone, up to and including police officers. The sources said that even for the normally outspoken Freeman, the statements felt out of place — particularly during what is usually a carefully scripted event.
The sources suggested that Freeman may have been under the influence. His statement did not elaborate on the reasons for his leave of absence.
Representatives for Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey, who was also in attendance, declined to comment Friday.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the union that represents the city's rank-and-file cops, said he had been told by officers who attended the meeting that Freeman slapped a police squad car with his hand and told nearby officers something to the effect of: "Thanks for not shooting me." Other police and city officials confirmed hearing that account.
Freeman's reported remark was apparently in reference to the Noor case, in which the former Minneapolis police officer testified that he shot Damond after becoming startled by a loud sound, possibly from Damond slapping the back of his squad. During the trial, prosecutors from Freeman's office grilled police and investigators from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) over accusations that they covered up for their colleagues.
"Despite this 'blue wall of silence' thing, a lot of my cops were anti-Noor on this," Kroll said. "The relationship going forward was strained after that, and this just digs it deeper."
A follow-up request for comment to the county attorney's office went unreturned on Friday afternoon.
Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist who has known Freeman since his teenage years, also heard the reports of Freeman's behavior at the meeting.
"His conduct was extremely insulting, outrageous, not consistent with the chief law enforcement officer" of the county, Edwards said.
This isn't the first time that Freeman has made controversial off-the-cuff remarks.
Speaking to a group of activists at a December 2017 event, he was recorded saying that a charging decision in the Noor case would be "the big present I'd like to see under the Christmas tree."
The recording, shot on an activist's cellphone and posted to social media, also captured the county attorney criticizing the BCA for its handling of the case, which became a recurring theme in the trial.
Noor's conviction on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter was hailed by some as a significant win for Freeman. Like many prosecutors around the country, he had in recent years come under increasing pressure to charge officers who are accused of misconduct.
The monthlong Noor trial also exposed a deep fracture between the county attorney's office and some of the police rank-and-file after prosecutors hammered officers on the witness stand about their intermittent body camera usage at the shooting scene and refusal to meet with prosecutors for questioning.
Activists also accused Freeman of employing a racial double standard for charging Noor, who is Somali-American, with the death of a white woman. Noor was the first Minnesota officer in recent history to be convicted of an on-duty shooting death.
Freeman has more than two decades' experience as county attorney. He first won the office in 1990 and served through 1999. He was re-elected in 2006 and has held the post since then.
He was most recently re-elected in 2018, besting a DFL-endorsed candidate. It was the first time in 12 years Freeman had faced a challenger.
The statement from Freeman's office said his chief deputies, attorneys David Brown and Lolita Ulloa, will take over day-to-day operations in his absence.
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.