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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is defending his office against several suburban mayors and police chiefs who say he has failed to adequately prosecute criminals in the rising wave of violent crime.

Freeman said last week that his office has devoted additional lawyers to carjacking cases and intensified prosecution of juvenile suspects. His lawyers pressed charges in 80% of all cases from Minneapolis last year, he said. He also said he has won convictions for some of the most dangerous crimes of the past year, prosecuting a dozen homicide cases, including those involving armed felons.

Freeman also pushed back against what he characterized as critics' simplistic view that a get-tough approach will stop these crimes.

"There has to be more than a philosophy of putting a person in jail and throwing away the key," he said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "If a kid steals a car, you want to intervene before he commits a violent carjacking."

Freeman has said he is not running for re-election after a finishing a sixth term. Now he is contending with a crime surge that is drawing considerable time, attention and criticism in his final year in office.

Minneapolis police reported a record of more than 600 attempted or successful carjackings in 2021. The crime spree has spilled into many suburbs, including Edina, St. Louis Park, Eden Prairie, Robbinsdale, Roseville, Maplewood and Woodbury.

The crime surge is particularly acute in Minneapolis, which recorded soaring numbers of violent crimes last year as the police department contends with a wave of nearly 300 retirements, resignations and an unpresented level of PTSD claims over the past couple of years.

Earlier this month, seven suburban mayors wrote a letter asking Freeman to get tougher on criminals and revisit a new policy in which suspects no longer need to post bail for nearly 20 low-level crimes, like possessing a small amount of narcotics and theft under $35,000.

"There is a sense of lawlessness and lack of accountability that is stemming from criminals who commit crimes and then are being turned back to the street in short order — with little or no consequence — and that conduct is repeated," the letter read.

When he unveiled the change, Freeman said there is no proof that imposing bail on low-level offenses reduces crime. He said it merely punishes low-income defendants, who risk losing their jobs and their homes. Instead of bail, suspects in these crimes now must promise to make all court appearances and are free until their next court hearing.

The avalanche of criticism and concerns thrown at Freeman heated up a month ago when more than 300 people jammed into an Edina meeting after a brazen carjacking in the parking lot of a Lunds & Byerlys grocery store.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said he was surprised that most of the public comments focused on what was deemed ineffective prosecution of first-time offenders and lax sentences for repeat criminals.

But even Hovland acknowledged that solutions are not easy.

"We have had two more attempted carjackings since the incident at the grocery store," he said. "One of the kids that was caught was a 12-year-old girl. What do you do? You can't jail her. How do you get her out of an environment where there might not be anything but trouble ahead?"

After the meeting, Hovland scheduled a private breakfast meeting with Freeman to talk about his concerns and frustrations. That breakfast prompted Freeman to invite Hovland to join a gathering of the state's top criminal judicial system officials, police chiefs and mayors from across the Twin Cities last week.

Before the latest wave of crime, Freeman announced a private-public partnership that he believes will tamp down juvenile offenses, much like the original Hope, Education and Law & Safety (HEALS) effort did in Minneapolis during a violent and deadly surge in the mid-1990s.

MN HEALS 2.0 works with Minneapolis and Hennepin County, business and faith leaders to engage with young people sooner, before problems arise.

The project is just taking shape, but in the 1990s, companies such as General Mills spent money on social programs, sports activities, gang violence intervention, job training and job placement. It even included community centers.

This time, Freeman said, the program will bring in suburban police, community leaders and social workers. The plan is to focus on reducing serious violent crime, with juvenile carjackings a priority.

"It is important that we take stock of what is working, what needs to be re-evaluated, what we can learn from our own past successes and failures and to make sure this analysis is based on facts," Freeman said. "We need ways to get kids back in school and have GED programs, sports activities, mental health services, gang violence intervention, mentors and job training and placement."

Plymouth Mayor Jeffry Wosje said he was not happy with Freeman's new policy ending bail for low-level offenses. His police chief, along with others, was upset that auto theft was initially included in the offenses no longer requiring bail.

Hearing the criticism, Freeman resumed requiring bail for car theft.

Now, more state leaders are getting involved.

On Friday, DFL Gov. Tim Walz convened a private call with suburban police chiefs to discuss the crime surge.

For his part, Freeman plans to meet with police chiefs this week to hear their concerns.

"If he really listens, maybe some things start to change," said Wosje, the mayor of Plymouth. "Barring that, sometimes a new voice is helpful."

Maple Grove Police Chief Eric Werner, who is also president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said the surge in violent crime is a result of policies implemented or influenced by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.

Werner was among a group that sent a letter to Freeman asking his office to be more aggressive in prosecutions, revisit the bail reform initiative and consider criteria to penalize juveniles more harshly for serious crimes.

But mainly, Werner said he and other chiefs simply want to be consulted as these policies are debated. He said the chiefs were caught off-guard by Freeman's bail changes.

"We need to be at the table when changes are made in his office to see the impact on law enforcement," he said. "We aren't seeing enough accountability for defendants."

Freeman said his office is always pursuing a balance, being tough on crime while acting thoughtfully on justice reforms and diversion programs for low-level offenders and people of color. He now has two teams specializing in prosecuting carjackings and also has a victim advocate. He said his staff is constantly reviewing cases to determine whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Besides tackling the latest crime surge, he is also working to create a statewide policy on high-speed pursuits and to reduce the soaring number of Native American children in foster care.

He is scrambling to get these things done in his final year, as well as tamp down carjackings.

"I just don't want to mark time until I'm done," he said. "I want to make sure that's not my final legacy."