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Hennepin County prosecutor Freeman to enter alcohol treatment

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman points to a reporter
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman at a press conference inside the Hennepin County Government Center in March 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Updated 5:36 p.m. | Posted 3:15 p.m.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman on Friday acknowledged a problem with alcohol and said he would be entering a treatment program Monday.

In an afternoon statement, the prosecutor said he'd been "evaluated for alcohol issues by a licensed assessor and we agree that I need treatment ... I am determined to reclaim my health and, barring any unforeseen issues, my goal is to return to work by no later than mid-June."

Last week, Freeman, 71, announced plans for a leave of absence to deal with what he described as the stress-related problems of his job.

  The day before, Freeman had been attending a crime prevention meeting in Minneapolis where he acted erratically, according to reporting from the Star Tribune. The paper cited sources who said Freeman told the audience he wasn't afraid to charge anyone, including cops.

The newspaper reported there was apparently a moment where Freeman slapped a police squad car and said something along the lines of, "Thanks for not shooting me."

The reference was to a key issue in the trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was recently convicted of murder and manslaughter in the 2017 shooting death of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk.

Ruszczyk, who was also known as Justine Damond, had called police to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her Minneapolis home. Noor, one of the responding officers, shot and killed her as she approached the police squad vehicle where Noor and his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, sat.

Noor's defense attorneys argued he'd fired to protect his terrified partner after hearing a thump on the squad in the alley, then seeing a figure by the driver's side window raising an arm. Prosecutors from Freeman's office countered that the thump was a story made up later and that Ruszczyk, approaching the squad in her pajamas that night, could not have been considered a threat.

The case and conviction were extraordinary. Prosecutors and police officers are typically allies in criminal cases. This was the first time a police officer in Minnesota has been convicted of murder for shooting someone while on duty.

  Freeman criticized the Minneapolis police and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for their early handling of the investigation. At one point, he said he was forced to convene a grand jury to compel the officers to testify. 

"On every investigation I've been involved in — with the exception of the Noor case — the work was superb," Freeman told reporters following Noor's conviction, adding that he believed the rift in trust between his office, the BCA and Minneapolis police had been repaired. 

Freeman has been in the spotlight a lot over the past few years with several high-profile shooting cases.

In 2016, Freeman chose not to press charges against two Minneapolis officers in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, concluding that the use of force by the officers was justified.

He faced backlash from activists and community members who believed those officers should've faced criminal charges.

"I'm very glad that he's taking time" to focus on his health, said Susan Gaertner, the former Ramsey County prosecutor.

County attorneys face huge responsibilities and pressures, she added.

"Everything you do is subject to criticism," Gaertner noted. "The Noor case is an extreme example, but it is the kind of decision-making that a county attorney has to do on a virtually daily basis."

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput serves on the board of the National District Attorneys Association with Freeman. Orput said he's seen Freeman's stress skyrocket in recent years, especially as he was compelled to decide on charges in a string of high-profile cases, including some in which police officers used deadly force.

"With alcohol we try to medicate and of course it doesn't work, so we medicate even further, until next thing we know, our judgment is so clouded — and of course it exacerbates the fear we feel, the doubt about whether we're making the right decisions," said Orput, who said he no longer drinks. "But if you make the commitment that you're going to decide from now on you're going to live a sober life and do it one day at a time, it makes the stress so much more manageable."

Orput said he's excited that Freeman is facing his problem with alcohol.

"I myself took to the program many years ago, and I'm grateful I did," Orput said. "I don't think I could do my job if I were trying to drink because drinking just clouds your judgement and you try to make the pain go away, and it doesn't work."

Another source of stress could be the changing nature of prosecutors in the United States, who are elected officials. Orput said public scrutiny of prosecutors, and the role they've played in mass incarceration, has increased.

"I think we've all tried to become smarter on crime. It doesn't necessarily mean we pile on sentences. I think we've all had to focus more acutely on doing the right thing to the right person at the right time," Orput said. "We've discovered that it isn't just about locking people up, we've got a much bigger mission."

Besides acknowledging the need for alcohol treatment, Freeman on Friday said he had high blood pressure but that it had been stabilized with medication, stress reduction and sleep.

David Brown and Lolita Ulloa, Freeman's chief deputies, will be in charge of the daily decisions of the prosecutor's office during Freeman's absence.

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this report.