Moriarty, Holton Dimick draw contrasts on police in Hennepin County attorney race

A two-year increase in violent crime has put the race for Hennepin County's top prosecutor into the spotlight, leaving the candidates to draw battle lines ahead of November's election.

Mary Moriarty, the former Hennepin County chief public defender, got 36% of the votes in August's seven-way primary. Retired Hennepin County judge Martha Holton Dimick received the second-most votes.

The candidates most sharply contrast over police issues. Holton Dimick says she views Moriarty as dangerous, while Moriarty says Holton Dimick's arguments represent the status quo.

Both are Minneapolis residents, meaning they voted on Question 2, the failed 2021 ballot initiative that would've replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a safety agency tasked with taking a public health approach to crime. Holton Dimick said she voted no; Moriarty declined to say how she voted.

"I’ve not talked about what my vote was for one particular reason: I’m not a politician, and I’m not trying to pander to people for votes," Moriarty said. She said taking a public position could require prosecutors to remove themselves if a future police ballot question faces legal challenges.

Moriarty has drawn support from Question 2 backers, according to Hennepin County and Minnesota campaign finance records. Movement Voter PAC, a Massachusetts-based committee that in 2021 gave $250,000 to a group that supported Question 2, has since contributed $60,000 to a group called People Over Prosecution that backs Moriarty in the county attorney's race.

Moriarty said she counts supporters and opponents of the MPD ballot question among her backers. She pointed to Nekima Levy Armstrong, a racial justice advocate who opposed the ballot question but has endorsed Moriarty.

Meanwhile, Holton Dimick compared Question 2 to the "Defund the Police" movement.

"How do you think that impacted the criminals in our neighborhoods? It was like putting up the 'Go' sign, just go ahead and commit crimes, and that’s exactly the effect it had," she said.

Candidates' plans for office

Moriarty said she would enhance intervention programs aimed at troubled youth. Holton Dimick is advocating a "tough on crime" approach that prosecutors have unsuccessfully tried for decades, Moriarty said.

Holton Dimick said she wants Minneapolis Police to have 900 officers, the staffing strength before the COVID-19 pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd. There were 563 active-duty, sworn officers earlier this month, according to city records.

Moriarty also plans to end retiring Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's practice of sending some police misconduct cases to other counties for review before deciding whether to prosecute.

Both candidates said they would prosecute officers who commit crimes or violate a person's civil rights. But Moriarty said she would go further, using the office to press for change within the MPD.

"I think one of my jobs as county attorney is to flag video of minor policy violations, bigger policy violations, and share that with police leadership because they don’t see it as much as prosecutors do, and say, 'I think you need to have a conversation here. There’s something going on in this officer’s life that they’re behaving in a certain way, and I think we can nip the next [Derek] Chauvin in the bud,'" Moriarty said.

Holton Dimick said she would be unable to exert significant influence over the MPD from the county attorney's office. However, all of the city's new police officers should be trained by an outside agency, not MPD, because of the department's cultural issues, she said.

"I think the culture is very damaged," she said. "I think the culture’s been damaged for a very long time."

Grading Freeman

Moriarty has been a vocal critic of Freeman, who has held the top prosecutor's job since voters elected him in 2006. Holton Dimick said she worked as an assistant county attorney under Freeman for his first three years in office.

Holton Dimick said she gives Freeman's tenure a "B-minus, maybe a C-plus." Transparency within the office must improve under the next county attorney, she said.

"I think Mike has a big heart, a good heart. But I think the lack of communication, the lack of transparency really hurt him these last few years," she said, especially with regard to police misconduct reviews and interactions with suburban police chiefs who are dealing with crime increases.

Violent crime was up 23.9% in the seven-county Twin Cities Metro last year, according to state data.

The looming change at the top has left some staffers uneasy.

Holton Dimick said that some prosecutors are considering whether to leave if Moriarty wins office. Moriarty said she's spoken with prosecutors directly and told them they should have no fear.

"I’ve heard this. 'Are you going to come in and fire all of us?' No. The answer is no," Moriarty said. "That’s not who I am as a human being, as the leader of an office."

No wave of departures has happened in the year since Freeman announced plans to retire, data from the county attorney's office indicate. There were 492 staffers on Aug. 1, including 223 attorneys. Those figures were slight increases from 470 staffers and 213 attorneys one year ago.