Summary of Hennepin County Attorney Candidate Forum

The entire state has many key offices being decided this year — in primaries August 9, for which early voting options have already begun, and the November 8 general election, for which early voting begins September 23.

One of the major decisions Hennepin County voters make this year is deciding which county attorney candidate will replace Mike Freeman, who is stepping down after six terms. The county attorney — a four-year term — is responsible for deciding how to prosecute felony crimes, such as murder, sexual assault, drug offenses, serious property crimes, and child protection. The office has an annual budget of more than $61 million, and oversees more than 500 employees. Two candidates will emerge from the primaries for the general election.

It is a unique elected position that has a major influence in how the county’s criminal justice system is handled. At a downtown Minneapolis forum on July 27, the seven candidates offered strong differences in perspectives, experiences, and suggested steps if elected. The centrality of complaints about how the Minneapolis Police Department culture has led to community perceptions of untrustworthy law enforcement was a major topic of conversation. The county also includes 44 other cities.

Martha Holton Dimick and Jarvis Jones

Martha Holton Dimick, a retired Hennepin County district judge, lives in north Minneapolis, where she says she feels the effect of the rising violent crime rates. She says the city brought down crime during the “Murderapolis” days around 1995 [when there were more than 800 police officers and nearly 100 homicides], and it can do it again “with collaboration of all justice partners.” She says our narrative after George Floyd’s murder was to defund the police, which has led to chaos in the community. The narrative needs to be that violent criminals will be aggressively prosecuted. There are alternatives, such as treatment courts and restorative justice, but there are too many dangerous people remaining in our neighborhoods and the priority is to serve victims of crime. She also will prioritize not letting bad police officers get their jobs back, and that bad behavior needs to be reported. She pointed false testimony out to the police chief when she was a judge. There is a lack of tech and recreation centers in the communities that need them the most; after-school programs have been cut in areas where parents are struggling to support their families. We need to get back to teaching civics classes that teach the values of respect and being a good citizen. “We are losing those values,” sometimes due to poverty and not feeling safe. “We are not taking care of families adequately.”

Jarvis Jones, an attorney from Edina, grew up in an unsafe neighborhood in Chicago, where his best childhood friend was murdered. He says he understands personally the lack of trust in the Black community of law enforcement. He has two siblings who are police officers, and know that “most officers want to keep us safe, and go home safe to their families.” He showed pages from his long- and short-terms plans that he encourages voters to read online. He says locking young criminals up is not solely going to solve public safety problems. We have to re-earn the trust of people in those communities who know more about who is committing crimes than they are willing to share in the current climate. Key to returning public safety is building bridges between communities of stakeholders. If a gun is involved with a crime, that youth is not acting like a juvenile offender and needs to know their crime will not simply end in release at age 18. “We cannot solve the problems when you cross the line of accountability.”

(from left) Jarvis Jones, Tad Jude, Mary Moriarty, Paul Ostrow, Saraswati Singh, and Ryan Winkler

Tad Jude, a former Washington County judge and state legislator, lives in Maple Grove. He said he was asked to run for attorney general to bring back safer streets, especially in Minneapolis, which is the heartbeat of the county. What happened on Fourth of July in downtown Minneapolis — when bystanders were shot at with powerful fireworks, and seven young people were injured — was chaos. “We have to make crime illegal again,” he says. He indicates that criminals in their 20s know how to groom teenagers for carjackings — youth who will get light sentences before they are back on the street escalating — and we also need to focus on better solving homicides. Transparency from the attorney generals office is important. We need to increase support for parents who do not have good options with kids who are making bad choices.

Mary Moriarty, of Minneapolis, is the former chief Hennepin County public defender, who oversaw a team of 140 lawyers. She says when police officer testimony contradicts what is viewable on video — something attorneys see more of than anyone — she will flag that for conversations with the police chief. The cultural shift that needs to happen with the Minneapolis police department is important if we are to have good police work done. She personally heard the warrior mentality of police officers. The Jaleel Stallings case shows why law enforcement is not trusted by many. [He was accused of attempted murder for firing at police officers, but video footage showed they fired first as undercover and unrecognizable cops, then beat him while he was face down.] She says we have failed youth from under-resourcing, and we are seeing the consequences of that now. We need trauma-informed services based on mental health needs. Sending youth to correction facilities often means they come back worse than they went in.

Paul Ostrow, assistant county attorney in Anoka County, lives in northeast Minneapolis. He says there is a lack of substance and ideas from his opponents about how to tackle violent crime while expanding rights for everyone. There is a political civil war in Minneapolis, and ideologies do nothing to “prosecute drug dealers who poison our kids for profit.” He outlined a plan that includes ending catch-and-release probations for repeat offenders, getting stolen firearms and carjackers off the street, fixing the broken juvenile system — precipitated by the closure of the county’s youth detention facility in Minnetonka — and continuing to make lawful traffic stops. [Ramsey Co. attorney general John Choi has ended making felony prosecutions from low-level stops, which he says is a mistake.] He says there is not a police culture problem, but a failure of leadership.

Saraswati Singh is an assistant Ramsey County attorney who lives near downtown Minneapolis. She says police accountability, racial justice, and public safety all have to be prioritized at the same time. The world is paying attention to how we address our racial equity issues, and we cannot turn a blind eye. She wants to move more officers from addressing drug offenses to violent crime. There is a backlog of cases in the court system, partly because the public health concerns of the pandemic halted the juror process. We do not need to prosecute low-level drug crimes, she says, and can move that energy to more complicated cases. Without accountability, people will continue to not call 911 when they need help, because of the fear of how it might be escalated with police presence. She has seen video that contradicts police testimony; criminals get acquitted if a law enforcement officer is not credible. She wants to embed people with officers, as we do with sexual assault cases, to train them how to not use excessive force. She says the pandemic led to a lack of structure for youth, which has contributed to today’s crime rates as well, and we need to support parents who do not know where to turn. “Just as factors have made it worse, factors can make it better” for juveniles who are willing to put in the work.

Ryan Winkler, majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, lives in Golden Valley. He saw in Summer 2020 how many leaders involved in the justice system do not work well together, exposing major cracks that leads to ineffectiveness and a lack of trust. He says he has a plan to prevent crimes related to those with chemical dependencies, mental health, and juveniles making wrong decisions. A priority is to solve violent crimes, which does not happen by hiring more police officers, but by developing a better relationship between teams of police and prosecutors. Reducing incarceration of juveniles needs to come with resources for effective mentoring. He says the challenge is how to hold police accountable while also working alongside them. He believes the hiring of Cedric Alexander to shift police culture in Minneapolis is a smart move. We cannot give up on police reform because of rising crime — the militarized approach by police is not effective at improving public safety. “We can create the system we want” with capable trained officers.

Related Reading

Police departments across the country are having trouble retaining and recruiting staff, leaving many with officer shortages. The New York Times reported in June that retirements were up 45 percent and resignations 18 percent in the 12-month period ending in April. 

Comparing today’s crime rates in Minneapolis with that of 1995, when the city was nicknamed Murderapolis.

The Minnesota Reformer spoke with Metro State University history professor Will Cooley, who is researching that era, about how that time is different — and similar — to today: “Minnesota’s racial disparities have been compounding so long that people believe the system is working against them, not for them, and the police have completely delegitimized themselves. That video of George Floyd — it’s gonna take decades to build that legitimacy back. You don’t have legitimacy, then you have people handling these things on their own. … Somebody shoots your friend, somebody shoots your cousin, a stray bullet shoots somebody; once those cycles of violence start, we’re talking about years of grudges. If we’re serious about rebuilding the legitimacy of the system and getting people to trust authorities, we have to deal with the underlying issues.”