Will Public Safety Worries End Progressive Prosecutor Sarah George’s Sweeping Reforms? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Will Public Safety Worries End Progressive Prosecutor Sarah George’s Sweeping Reforms?

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Published July 27, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 2, 2022 at 1:03 p.m.


Ted Kenney and Sarah George - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ted Kenney and Sarah George

Katie Anderson and JP Coseno were sure they'd caught the moped thief red-handed. The couple spotted Anderson's commuter bike in Burlington in the bed of a shiny Chevy Silverado and tailed the driver to a market in the city's Old North End. They blocked him in the parking lot until Burlington police arrived.

Officers allowed Anderson to retrieve her moped. They also let the Silverado driver go, without so much as a citation. One of the officers, Coseno said, blamed Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George. The officer said the county's reformist prosecutor had recently issued a memo limiting when police could bring cases involving theft, Coseno recalled. Unless the suspect admitted to knowing the bike was stolen (which he didn't) or witnesses saw him take it (which the couple hadn't), Burlington cops couldn't hold him accountable, Coseno said he was told.

In reality, the memo, which Coseno and Anderson hadn't seen, instructed officers to do sufficient investigatory work to ensure their cases would pass legal muster. But in a Facebook post later that night about the episode, Anderson urged her friends not to support George in her reelection bid against Democratic primary challenger Ted Kenney. In recent years, Anderson wrote, downtown Burlington "has been feeling less and less safe." Now she thought she knew why.

The July 13 post got hundreds of shares, including from the Burlington Police Officers' Association, which thanked Anderson for speaking out.

"We should demand better from our elected officials," wrote the union, which would later endorse Kenney.

Since her appointment in 2017, George has distinguished herself as one of the country's most progressive county prosecutors, part of a vanguard who are trying to dismantle the system of mass incarceration and reimagine criminal justice. But as the pandemic has strained public safety and social services in Vermont, George is facing her first political test.

She's feeling pressure from frustrated business owners, residents and embattled cops. Kenney, a Williston lawyer and selectboard member, has positioned himself as the champion of those who are fed up, arguing that George's aggressive reforms have come at the expense of public safety. With no Republican in the race, the August 9 primary will decide the winner.

The reactionary political landscape is not unlike the one in San Francisco, where high-profile progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin was removed in June following a well-funded recall campaign. Boudin had been the first local prosecutor in the country to stop seeking cash bail and personally advised George on her decision to follow suit in 2020. His ouster in one of the country's liberal bastions exposed how reformist prosecutors are politically vulnerable when crime is on voters' minds.

George watched Boudin's defeat this summer with dismay. Her assessment: "A lot of incredibly conservative people" spent more than $7 million to mislead the California city's voters about crime trends and what is causing them.

"It's a very classic example of Chesa being scapegoated for all of the woes of San Francisco," she said.

George sees her opponents using a similar playbook to take advantage of festering homelessness and health crises. "There is a very targeted campaign of disinformation happening in the community by people that are not happy with the work I've been doing, and it's stoking fear in people," she said. "That is being created by police. It's now being pushed by my opponent."

George has tried to counter a perception that crime and disorder are surging as a result of her policies. Burlington has seen a record number of gunfire incidents this year, including two fatal shootings this month. But George notes that while gun crime has spiked nationwide and elsewhere around Vermont, more conservative county prosecutors haven't been blamed for it.

Originally from Quechee, George worked in the state's attorney's office for six years before Gov. Phil Scott picked her in 2017 over two other Democrats, including Kenney, to finish T.J. Donovan's term when Donovan was elected attorney general. No one challenged George during her first election contest in 2018.

While in office, she's pursued strategies to overhaul criminal justice. In addition to ending cash bail, which ties an accused person's freedom to their access to money, George led efforts to decriminalize the drug buprenorphine, which is used to treat people who are addicted to opioids. She has declined to prosecute charges that stem from most low-level traffic stops because they disproportionately affect people of color. She recently created a pilot program to divert some first-offense DUI defendants from criminal courts to restorative justice programs. Her office's written mission statement pledges to hold "individuals, ourselves and the criminal justice system accountable."

Nearly 50 attorneys, including many in criminal defense, have publicly endorsed George, as have more than two dozen local and state elected officials. State Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), who chairs the House Committee on Human Services, said George doesn't divorce her legal lens from her awareness of the social forces and failures that contribute to criminal behavior.

"She has that dual focus, which I think is important," Pugh said.

The state's attorney has remained steadfast in her approach during an election cycle in which crime has taken center stage. At a recent candidate forum hosted by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, NBC5 journalist Stewart Ledbetter, the moderator, peppered George with questions about spikes in theft. The state's attorney doubled down on her message that the criminal justice system is racist and classist and does more harm than good.

"Not only do I support and stand by everything I've done, but we have a lot more work to do, and I plan on doing more," she said.

'Letting Us Down'

Kenney's campaign website promises that he'll bring "criminal justice reform and safe streets." He's pitched himself as more pragmatic than George while still distinguishing his approach from a conventional "tough on crime" strategy.

"I think that message is code for, you know, pure punishment. And I'm not about that," he said in an interview.

Yet his campaign has largely focused on the notion that the "streets" are not particularly safe. Asked to detail his proposals for criminal justice reform, Kenney said he wants to convince municipal governments to fund a joint police training program that would help address implicit bias. He wants to require similar training for prosecutors and pledges to host regular community "listening sessions."

Along with a majority of state's attorney candidates across Vermont, he refused to answer a policy survey from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which advocates for criminal justice reform. Kenney said he objected to the survey's yes-or-no format.

Kenney has long had his eye on the state's attorney post. He lost a primary race against eventual winner Donovan in 2006 and later sought the same gubernatorial appointment that George landed.

He's held a number of municipal roles in Williston, including on the school board, planning commission and selectboard, for which he's currently vice chair. Early in the pandemic, Donovan hired Kenney to fill a vacancy as the head of the Human Services Division in the Attorney General's Office. He stepped down to run in the state's attorney primary.

Kenney has also emphasized other experiences, including his time as a contract attorney working as a public defender for the state, and his personal background. One of Kenney's brothers, who had schizophrenia, was killed in a New York City park in the 1980s while homeless; the case was never solved. His brother's life, Kenney said, informs his understanding of the role of mental health in public safety. He's also the father of two daughters whom he and his wife adopted from China. Raising them, he said, forced him to think more deeply about racism and implicit bias, including his own.

Kenney decided to challenge George at the encouragement of local politicos who were dissatisfied with the state's attorney, as one supporter described them. A number of longtime power brokers sit on his campaign committee, including Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), an ally of Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger; former city councilors Dave Hartnett and Jane Knodell; and Sens. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Thomas Chittenden (D-Chittenden). Kenney has also garnered support from business owners, including $500 from landlord Bill Bissonette and $1,500 from real estate mogul Ernie Pomerleau, whose white-columned office in downtown Burlington boasts a green Kenney lawn sign.

While on the council, Knodell, an old-guard Progressive who lost her seat in 2019 to Perri Freeman, clashed with George over safe injection sites. Knodell voted against pursuing the harm-reduction strategy, which George has championed. (Kenney wants local governments to study the issue more.)

Since then, Knodell has found more reasons to criticize George. She's chiefly concerned about the direction of her Old North End neighborhood, where she's lived for nearly 30 years. Knodell said the prevalence of hypodermic needles and theft in recent years has left her questioning whether she needs to move.

Knodell said George is partly responsible for the deteriorating conditions in the neighborhood. Specifically, she pointed to George's policy not to prosecute charges stemming from pretextual traffic stops — which Kenney has said he'd reverse. Police often use minor offenses such as a broken taillight to question or search drivers whom they suspect of more serious criminal activity. But George cited data showing that people of color are more likely to be stopped and searched. Knodell believes the policy prevents police from catching drug dealers.

"She's so committed to her theories of reform that, in particular instances, her office is making calls that are letting us down as a community," Knodell said of George.

'Facts on the Ground'

Kenney's main antidote to the spike in some lower-level crimes would involve a more aggressive approach to offenders. While George has expanded the use of restorative justice — so much that the Williston Community Justice Center has roughly doubled its volunteer pool — Kenney pushes for more "consequences," particularly for people repeatedly accused of crimes.

Vermont law strictly limits when defendants can be locked up before trial, but judges can impose conditions of release to ensure they show up to court or to protect the public. Kenney contends that George's office has not "forcefully advocated" for stricter conditions in cases where defendants are arrested again and again.

"The first time or maybe even the second time, I think we can be compassionate, but not the third, fourth and fifth time," he said. "That seems to me to be the product of a philosophy and not the facts on the ground."

Kenney has pointed to a case in which a homeless man accused of burglarizing two downtown Burlington businesses was released and later shoved first responders and climbed into a fire truck at City Hall Park. George's office, he said, could have asked the judge to impose a curfew or require the man to remain in the custody of a responsible adult.

George counters that curfews for unhoused defendants are often a "setup for failure" and increase the likelihood that they are incarcerated. Locking up lower-level defendants who have underlying mental health issues, housing insecurity or substance-use disorder, she contends, would do little to make communities safer in the long run.

Appeals to public safety have won Kenney the support of most local law enforcement, including endorsements from the county's biggest police and first responder unions. He's signaled a more collaborative approach with police while insisting he will not be their steadfast ally.

Critics of Kenney have shared photos of him marching in a campaign parade alongside former Williston police officer Travis Trybulski. Last year, George refused to prosecute Trybulski's cases after an internal investigation found a "clear pattern of profiling and bias," she wrote in a public letter. George has written 13 such "Brady letters" about local officers with credibility issues — more than any other state's attorney.

Kenney said the officer had already paid for his misconduct with the loss of his job. "I mean, how long am I supposed to hate people?" he said.

'Petty Little Game'?

Kenney advocates "constructive friction" between police and the state's attorney but said the relationship under George has become "dysfunctional" in the eyes of police. It's the state's attorney's job, he said, to maintain healthy lines of communication.

George, however, said the Burlington Police Department has allowed a "toxic" culture to poison the rank and file and union leadership, which has been highly critical of municipal budget cuts and some of George's practices. She's particularly frustrated by how some officers have communicated with crime victims, such as the couple with the stolen moped. She suspects some officers are trying to undermine her work.

Police and the state's attorney must be able to prove to a judge that they have probable cause to charge each crime. George said some officers haven't included enough information in their affidavits to support charges, forcing her staff to either charge a lesser offense or send the case back for follow-up.

The June memo around cases involving motor vehicle thefts, George said, was an effort to strengthen them by reminding officers to gather evidence that supports the charge — namely, that the defendant knew the property was not theirs. Any suggestion that her office was refusing to prosecute such cases absent an admission of guilt, she said, is "ludicrous." Her office is currently prosecuting more than 240 cases involving possession of stolen property and operation without owners' consent, she said.

Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad declined an interview about the strained relations between the department and the state's attorney, saying he will "never comment on electoral politics." He wrote in an email that he personally has a "good relationship" with George, noting that they talk regularly and have lunch each quarter. Murad requested that Seven Days send details about any specific incidents involving his officers so he could "look into them." He did not respond to written questions about several incidents.

Gretchen Verplanck of Burlington, who, like Coseno and Anderson, had her moped stolen this summer, said she was put off by how the cop assigned to her case invoked George in their interactions. After Verplanck found her moped and led police to a suspect, the officer told her that George had issued an order requiring such cases to be diverted to alternative justice, though the department has its own policy stating the same. Nearly two months later, Verplanck said, she's not aware that the officer forwarded the case anywhere.

Verplanck said she thinks police are trying to hurt George politically at the expense of residents. It's a "stupid, petty little game," she said.

Others feel just the opposite. At a press conference earlier this month, University of Vermont Medical Center nurses called on hospital and public officials to protect nurses from assaults by patients. They criticized George for failing to hold offenders accountable.

George, who said she had been unaware of the problems at the ER, contacted the nurses to discuss their concerns. They then met last Friday, emergency room nurse Megan Martin said, but the visit didn't change Martin's view that the state's attorney should be doing more.

"Her biggest relationship is with the Burlington police, and it appears very broken," Martin said. "She acknowledged that, but she also acknowledged she doesn't know how to fix it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cross Examination"