During a routine investigation in late June, Winooski Police Officer Owen Dugan apologized to a group of residents for failing to address suspected crime in the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of crack houses in Winooski,” Dugan said during the exchange, which was captured by a body camera. “Unfortunately this is kind of the product of Sarah George’s super-progressive, soft-on-crime approach, where we arrest the same people daily and they get out the same day.”
Dugan was referring to Chittenden County’s embattled state’s attorney, who is facing the toughest political challenge of her career in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary. George, who has carved out a reputation as a criminal justice reformer, has drawn criticism from those — particularly in the law enforcement community — who say she’s soft on crime.
The Winooski officer, who was on duty at the time, didn’t just disparage George. He also put in a plug for her opponent, fellow Democrat Ted Kenney, a Williston attorney.
“Come August, Ted Kenney is running against her,” Dugan told the residents. “I would implore you to vote for him because he actually wants a sea change as far as putting career criminals in jail.”
The exchange highlighted the extent to which police officers have rallied around Kenney’s candidacy — and the depth of their antagonism toward George, who is responsible for prosecuting their cases.
Among the organizations that have endorsed Kenney’s candidacy are the Vermont Troopers Association, which represents rank-and-file members of the Vermont State Police, as well as the Burlington Police Officers’ Association, the South Burlington Police Officers’ Association, the Winooski Police Association, the Williston Police Officers Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
George takes issue with Kenney’s courtship of the law enforcement community.
“I have never sought and would never seek the endorsement of a police union,” George said at a press conference this week. “I think that’s an apparent conflict with my job. I have a responsibility to hold law enforcement accountable. I have done that, arguably more than any other state's attorney.”
She also questioned whether Kenney made any promises to the police unions in exchange for their endorsements.
In a press release announcing the troopers’ endorsement, Kenney said he had merely promised to do the job he’s seeking.
“The only thing I agreed to was that I would listen, and that I would work to repair the fractured
relationship between law enforcement and the Chittenden State’s Attorney’s office,” Kenney said.
In his view, there’s a simple reason why members of the law enforcement community are siding with him: When it comes to public safety, he told VTDigger, they believe Chittenden County is “on the wrong track.”
George said she found Dugan’s on-the-job campaigning troubling for a number of reasons. For one thing, she argued, he mischaracterized her records. Her approach to prosecution has “absolutely nothing to do with the number of quote unquote crack houses in Winooski,” she said, calling the use of such language a concern.
Furthemore, she said, the footage could undermine a related case because it might render the officer less credible in court. The deputy state’s attorney who came upon the video while reviewing the case was “pretty upset by it,” George said.
“When that person is using this tough-on-crime, fear-mongering terminology from the ’80s and then lying to people in our community, that's incredibly concerning,” George said. “Communications like this one erode the trust between community, law enforcement, my office and the judiciary. It's unprofessional and it's dangerous.”
Winooski Police Chief Rick Hebert told VTDigger that his officers are expected to always remain neutral in politics and should refrain from discussing private opinions on such matters while on duty and representing the department.
Hebert said in an email that he believes the comment caught on Dugan’s body camera video was an isolated incident, and he said it had been handled as a “teachable moment” for the officer.
Dugan could not be reached for comment.
In George’s view, the Winooski incident is “a prime example of the inherent conflict” that comes with prosecutors accepting endorsements from police.
“When police officers have a vested interest in the outcome of an election, they make decisions and they say things while in uniform that they believe will serve that goal,” she said. “And the cases that our office needs to prosecute suffer because of it.”
A ‘dangerous’ pattern
Throughout the country, progressive prosecutors have faced blowback in recent years from those who blame them, justly or not, for a rise in crime. One star of the movement, former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin — a friend and ally of George’s — was booted from office in a June recall election.
George has faced similar criticism from members of Vermont’s law enforcement community.
In a written statement last week, the Burlington Police Officers’ Association described a “dangerous … pattern of non-prosecution” during George’s tenure as Chittenden County state’s attorney.
“The disastrous effects of SA George’s non-prosecution of serious cases cannot be ignored any longer,” the union wrote.
Mike O’Neil, executive director of the Vermont Troopers Association, wrote in his union’s endorsement of Kenney that George “has incrementally enforced policies that have helped contribute to the current trend of unrest in Vermont’s most populated county.”
The union claims that under George, there’s been a prosecutorial imbalance that has contributed to a perceived uptick in violent crime, as well as serious property crimes. The troopers have also taken issue with her decision to decline to prosecute criminal cases that stem from motor vehicle violations, which she believes do not pose a risk to the general public.
According to George, her “non-public safety stop” policy is a response to the fact that people of color are disproportionately impacted by criminal charges that originate from further investigation into vehicles pulled over initially for minor vehicle violations.
But according to the troopers association, 40% of DUI arrests by the Vermont State Police are a result of “minor” vehicle violation traffic stops. Therefore, they argue, George’s policy makes roads more dangerous and may fail to prevent tragedies.
Kenney believes this approach to be counterproductive and compared it to “using a machete when you should be using a scalpel” or amputating your arm to lose 10 pounds.
“The policy basically says, ‘we're going to discourage the police from pulling people over in the first place,’ and I don't agree with that,” Kenney said. “These really are law violations. And I want people to use their blinker, I want them to yield, I want them to have brake lights that work.”
‘A concerted backlash’
George said she believes she’s been made a scapegoat for a variety of complex problems. In her view, people who are truly invested in racial justice and social justice support her policies and appreciate her record.
She stands by her decision to avoid prosecuting criminal cases that stem from minor traffic violations and said she believes that to say such policies overreach is to condone continued traffic stops based on the color of people’s skin.
“You cannot acknowledge the racial disparities in our traffic stops and then excuse them by saying that something I've done has gone too far, especially as white individuals,” she said.
Kenney’s approach to addressing racial bias in policing is to advance and improve training for police officers. If that did not work, he said, he would monitor outcomes and reassess them.
But George argues that state's attorneys are not responsible for training police.
“My policy is about the things I can control as a prosecutor,” she said. “The reality is that there are implicit biases that are involved here. And there are explicit biases that you cannot train out of somebody it is in, it is inherently going to happen.”
Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, who endorsed George, told VTDigger she believes that people of color are watching this race far more closely than any other race in Vermont’s busy primary election season. Ram Hinsdale said she believes a false narrative by police officials has largely contributed to the sense that there has been an uptick in Black crime in Chittenden County.
“That kind of narrative is not only dangerous for people of color in the county and the state, but it's also dangerous for us actually solving criminal cases or keeping our streets safe from crime, because once you make Black people the target, you stop looking at behavior and you stop looking at what's really happening,” Ram Hinsdale said.
Ram Hinsdale, the first woman of color elected to the Vermont Senate, believes George is the candidate who is most capable of facilitating progress in a system she believes is failing Black kids in Vermont.
“It keeps me up at night that young Black men make up two and a half percent of our youth population, but 25% of those charged as youthful offenders,” she said.
James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, ties the criticism of George to a national movement to unseat progressive prosecutors.
“We've seen a concerted backlash in an effort to block further progress and undermine criminal justice reform and public safety reforms and that dynamic is playing out across the country, including right here in Vermont,” he said. “Nowhere in Vermont has that dynamic been more apparent than in Burlington.”
Lyall believes discussions surrounding public safety are complex and that leaders must engage in debates collaboratively and with transparency and integrity, but that some leaders have peddled fear and misinformation to undermine the public’s perception of public safety in Burlington.
“It's that style of leadership does a great disservice to Burlington residents and their shared desire to live in a vibrant safe and supportive community,” Lyall said. “So no matter which candidates prevail in the upcoming election, they should be prepared to prioritize people and communities over more prisons and policing — consistent with the views of their constituents.”
According to George, police support for Kenney is related in part to the fact that she has sent more “Brady letters” than any other state’s attorney. Brady letters are issued by state’s attorneys to record police credibility issues, such as getting caught lying or exhibiting bias, and can often end an officer’s career.
Travis Trybulski, a former officer in the Williston Police Department, was the subject of one of George’s Brady letters in 2021, and was recently seen marching with Ted Kenney to promote the latter’s campaign.
Kenney believes that he’s received support from police and five other state’s attorneys because he’s a “straight shooter,” he told VTDigger.
“I'm not a saint, but I try really hard to play by the rules,” he said. “The idea that it would be a conflict of interest to accept first responder union endorsements is kind of silly.”
The crossover effect
Because no public polling has been conducted on the Chittenden County prosecutor’s race, it’s impossible to know whether Kenney’s message is taking hold. One factor that could influence the outcome is whether Republicans choose to cross party lines in order to vote in the race and other competitive Democratic primaries.
“I certainly know that (Kenney’s) message is appealing to Republicans in our community and that they may decide to do that,” George said.
Vermont Republican Party chair Paul Dame said he’s also expecting a significant number of Republicans to turn in Democratic ballots so that they can back Kenney. He said he’s noticed an “outpouring of support” for the challenger.
Kenney himself, however, told VTDigger he was not aware of those dynamics and did not know whether many Republicans would turn out for him.
“It’s so hard to predict who’s going to come out and vote and why they’re doing it,” Kenney said.
As the race winds down, George is taking stock of the criticism she has faced.
Defending one’s record “comes with the territory” of running for reelection. But she said she believes that sexism plays a role in some of the criticism she’s encountered, as much of it is over “quite basic things” that the public did not object to under her predecessor, TJ Donovan.
Ram Hinsdale believes George is also taking heat for many societal pressures outside the scope of her office.
“People are unfairly criticizing her for not further criminalizing poverty, despair, homelessness, so many symptoms of the pandemic and our general economic downturn,” Ram Hinsdale said.
In looking at recent gun violence, people are frustrated and feel unsafe, the senator said. The prosecutor’s office is “where the buck stops,” according to Ram Hinsdale, but not where it starts.
“The buck starts with the Legislature. The buck starts with the mayor. The buck starts with how police interact with those that they are there to protect and serve,” Ram Hinsdale said. “Sarah is there trying to clean up a lot of messes that she didn't create. So are people unfairly blaming her for those messes when she's trying to clean them up? Absolutely.”
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