Group chides AG Donovan for ignoring ‘Dump the Cop Cash’ pledge

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan says he won’t take campaign contributions from police unions but will consider accepting their endorsements. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

A reform organization is calling out Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan for not signing onto a letter pledging to reject endorsements and campaign contributions from police unions.

“AG Donovan ignores national call to reject police union support,” read the subject line of an email sent to VTDigger from The Justice Collaborative Institute, a national group that advocates for changes in the criminal justice system. 

Donovan said he did get the letter and opted not to respond to it, adding that he hasn’t dealt with The Justice Collaborative Institute in the past.

“I would have appreciated a phone call and a discussion as opposed to kind of a hard deadline of, ‘If you don’t respond we’re going to post that you didn’t respond,’” Donovan said. “My general rule on that is, I don’t respond to that stuff.”

More than 40 elected prosecutors from around the country have signed onto the pledge, including one in Vermont, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George.

The initiative seeking the pledge from prosecutors follows polling from the progressive firm Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute. 

That polling, according to the organizations, reveals a majority of respondents support rules that keep prosecutors from taking in contributions from police and police unions while about one-quarter of the respondents oppose it.

The letter as well as those prosecutors who have signed is online at dumpcopcash.com.

That website also lists those prosecutors and their photos who the organization says “did not respond” to the request to sign onto the pledge.

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Donovan is listed on the page with more than 100 other prosecutors, including Democratic attorneys general Aaron Ford of Nevada and Bob Ferguson of Washington, as well as Republican Ashley Moody of Florida.

Donovan did sign onto a letter in July from the group Fair and Just Prosecution, another national criminal justice reform organization. 

That letter is headed, “Joint statement from elected prosecutors on the murder of George Floyd and police violence.” George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May, sparking nationwide protests over racial justice and abuses of law enforcement authority around the country. 

That letter, also signed by more than 40 prosecutors from around the country, calls for a host of reforms, including improvements in law enforcement training for the use of force and urges police use of body cameras.

The Chittenden County state’s attorney, signed onto that letter, too.

That letter also addresses endorsements and campaign contributions from police unions to prosecutors.

“Prosecutors, when running for office,” the letter stated, “should not seek or accept endorsements or donations from police departments or police unions; and prosecutors should work with the American Bar Association and other national groups to embed these practices in ethical rules to ensure prosecutorial independence and avoid any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Donovan said he signed that letter because he knows about the Fair and Just Prosecution organization.

“The difference is I have a working relationship with Fair and Just Prosecution,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of positions with them and there is a relationship. I don’t know the Justice Collaborative.” 

Donovan has accepted endorsements and campaign contributions from police unions in the past, including the endorsement in the 2018 election cycle from the Vermont Troopers’ Association as well as a $2,000 campaign contribution from the group. 

Donovan said he understands the need for reform and has not accepted the endorsement or campaign contributions from police unions this election cycle, though he has little competition in his bid for another two-year term.

Going forward he will not accept campaign contributions from police unions, he said.

Donovan wouldn’t say outright whether he would reject police union endorsements.

“As attorney general, given that I’m the chief law enforcement officer, I understand how a political contribution could create the appearance of a conflict,” he said, “especially when we’re talking about an officer-involved shooting.” 

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In every fatal police shooting he has reviewed since elected attorney general in 2016, Donovan has ruled the officers’ actions as justified. 

Donovan said he supports reforms to the current legal standard for reviewing police shootings that are based on whether officers were in fear for their lives and how a reasonable person would have acted in the situation. 

Instead, he said, he would like the standard changed to take into account the actions of police in a much wider time frame of actions through an entire encounter. 

The letter Donovan didn’t sign, from The Justice Collaborative Institute, talked about the appearances created when prosecutors accept both endorsements and campaign contributions from police unions. 

“Campaign endorsements and contributions send a message,” the letter stated. “They tell citizens that the candidate — in this case, a prosecutor seeking election — aligns with the values and interests of the donor or endorser.”

Donovan said that he agreed with that when it comes to contributions, but that he would still consider accepting police union endorsements. 

The attorney general said he supports decent wages, health care, and retirement benefits for law enforcement and other first responders, positions that unions also advocate for. 

“I’m proud to have their support,” he added. “That’s not going to sway me from being an impartial decision-maker on these use-of-force cases.”

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