Crime and Justice

Chittenden County prosecutor to review cases for racial disparity

Sarah George
Prosecutor Sarah George plans to review all pending cases involving black individuals in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Pool photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George is taking a “deeper dive” into all the pending criminal cases of black individuals in that jurisdiction to determine if they were handled in the same way as other cases.

George is initiating that measure and calling for other reforms in response to the killing two weeks ago of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer who pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground for nearly nine minutes.

The Burlington-based prosecutor said in an interview Tuesday that the review of pending cases involving black individuals is among the initiatives she will be implementing in her office and pushing for to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

That review, according to George, will look at those cases to determine whether “consistent decisions were made to comparative cases with white individuals.” 

George said with the court system opening up this month to address more cases after shutting down for several weeks for all but emergency matters in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, each pending case in the county will be set for a status conference.

Those status conferences will look at where each case stands, George said.

“Now as cases are set and deputies are pulling out their pending cases they will look to see whether it’s a black individual and take that deeper dive into the case,” she said.

That will include, George said, determining whether there is “independent corroborating evidence” of what a person making a report is alleging.

“I think that’s really one solid place we can start,” she said. “That’s the starting point, and then just really looking at it from a different lens. Everytime that we learn something we can go back and look at cases and see if we see it in a different perspective or different light.”

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In addition, Goerge said, the review will include looking at video footage, including from police body cameras, when available.

She said prosecutors will also review whether a previous offer to resolve a case was made to see if it was reasonable or if there are alternative ways to resolve a case.

George said she didn’t know the number of cases in Chittenden County pending against black individuals.

Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans, the top prosecutor in the county that is among the least diverse in the state, said Tuesday that he is aware of only two pending criminal cases of black individuals in that jurisdiction. 

He said he recently reviewed them and did not find any racial bias in their handling.

John Campbell, executive director of the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said Tuesday he wasn’t aware of any other state’s attorneys in Vermont conducting similar reviews of pending cases.

George wrote about her reform initiatives in a document titled, “Enough: We Must Do Better,” and posted it last week to Medium, an online publishing platform, and shared it across social media.

“This is a proposal, I don’t have all the answers,” George said Tuesday. ‘I think that input from all of the invested agencies and parties is important. I just think that there has to be some better process in place than we have now.” 

George wrote that following Floyd’s killing she spent a lot of time observing, listening and processing information from across the country and from her community.

“As the Chittenden County State’s Attorney,” she wrote, “I am the chief law enforcement officer in the largest and most diverse county in this great state and my community, the community I was elected and sworn to serve, is frustrated with political lip-service and inaction.”

She added, “My community is telling me that actions speak louder than words and that the time for action is now. I hear you and I could not agree more.”

George proposes instituting a statewide standard for use of force by law enforcement and establishing a central system for conducting reviews.

“As to the statewide standard, right now, we don’t have one and every law enforcement agency has the ability to have their own use of force policy,” she said.  

In addition, George is proposing a system that requires officers involved in a use of force incident against a person to self-report it to a supervisor, and any officer who witnesses use of force would need to do the same.

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A law enforcement agency would then have 48 hours to report it to the Vermont Attorney General’s office for review. Findings would then be made public, with any victim names redacted.

George is calling for changes in training at the Vermont Police Academy, which she said currently has a strong military bent.

“That is not the way we want officers in the community,” she said. “We want them engaging with people, having conversations with people, being friendly, welcoming, and approachable.” 

She said among the reforms, the training should “emphasize community and relational” policing.

Another proposal calls for prioritizing funding, looking at budgets of law enforcement, the Department of Corrections, and the judicial system. Those entities, she said, are often called upon to deal with matters outside their area of main focus, from mental health to substance abuse to housing.

“Going forward,” George wrote, “we must restructure law enforcement, judiciary, and DOC resources and reallocate funds to educators and local community agencies who are uniquely trained in these complicated areas.” 

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Alan J. Keays

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