Reform Prosecutor Wins After Police Union Attacks in Vermont
State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George faced a barrage of criticism from police unions for expanding restorative justice and shrinking the footprint of prosecution in Chittenden County.
Piper French, | August 10, 2022
Sarah Fair George, the state’s attorney in Vermont’s Chittenden County (Burlington) who expanded restorative justice and instituted far-reaching reforms to narrow the scope of prosecution in her county, has been locked in an antagonistic relationship with local law enforcement since she took office in 2017. On Tuesday, George easily prevailed in the Democratic primary against opponent Ted Kenney, whom police unions had rallied around.
“We won in every single district in this county,” George said in an interview Wednesday. She called the results a “command” from the community to continue with the reforms she’s initiated since taking office. “I really hope that it’s seen by law enforcement and others in the community as a sort of, let’s come together and do this, push forward on some of these issues together. And I look forward to doing that. That’s what I plan on doing.”
George, who was first appointed by GOP Governor Phil Scott but has run as a Democrat, will be unopposed in the general election, and is all but certain to secure an additional four-year term.
George and Kenney fundamentally disagreed during the campaign about the proper scope of prosecution and policing in Chittenden County, with Kenney faulting many of George’s reforms.
During her tenure, George has implemented major changes. She has refused to seek cash bail and declined to charge people for possessing buprenorphine, which helped inspire legislation that in 2021 made Vermont the first state to legalize possession of the prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction. In 2019, George ordered her entire staff to visit a prison, saying she hoped the experience would lead them to seek fewer and shorter sentences.
George has also significantly expanded the use of pre-charge restorative justice programs, Bolts reported in July. The state’s attorney has been a champion of restorative justice since she first took office, arguing that it is a more compassionate and victim-centered form of harm response that can allow people to take accountability for their actions while avoiding contact with the criminal legal system altogether.
She allied with so-called progressive prosecutors around the country who are looking to reform local court systems, some of whom celebrated her win on Tuesday. Many have faced pushback this year from critics of reforms, including law enforcement associations. In June, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was ousted in a recall, while fellow reformer Diana Becton prevailed over police attacks in neighboring Contra Costa. George’s win comes just five days after a reform challenger ousted the police-backed DA of Tennessee’s Shelby County (Memphis).
Similar tensions arose in Chittenden County. Major police associations, including both local and state unions like the Vermont Troopers Associations and the Chittenden County Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Kenney in recent weeks after long feuding with George over her approach.
Police departments criticized George for declining to prosecute certain cases—and, by extension, hemming them in in their duties. A statement from the Burlington Police Officers’ Association criticized what they called her “pattern of non-prosecution,” calling her actions “disastrous.” George, meanwhile, argued that the police themselves were declining to make arrests in cases that she would have prosecuted—in order to prove their own point and drum up fears about rampant crime.
“In some cases, they were saying, ‘I’m not going to even respond to this because Sarah George won’t prosecute it’—and in a lot of those instances, it was things we absolutely would have prosecuted and would prosecute if the police sent it to us,” George told Bolts. Asked for an example of such a crime, George cited vehicle thefts—which Burlington officers’ association had singled out in their letter denouncing George’s reforms. This conflict also seemed reminiscent of the dynamics in San Francisco around Boudin: in the months before his recall, San Francisco police refused to assist the DA in a sting operation, leading some to speculate whether they were engaged in a retaliatory “work stoppage.”
In recent weeks, local media has published multiple accounts of individual officers invoking George as the reason they couldn’t or wouldn’t arrest someone. According to Seven Days, after a couple’s moped was stolen and the couple tracked down the thief, police let him go, placing the blame on George’s directives. In an encounter caught on body cam and reported on by VT Digger, a Winooksi police officer blamed the police’s inability to address crime and drug use in the neighborhood on George’s “super-progressive, soft-on-crime approach”—and urged the Winooski residents he was talking to vote for her opponent Kenney.
One of George’s most controversial reforms was her policy of not prosecuting cases that arose from traffic stops for things like a suspended registration or a broken brake light, which she enacted to try to reduce the documented racial bias that factors into such encounters. The Vermont Troopers Association cited this reform as evidence of “an imbalance, [sic] that put her in direct conflict with her elected responsibilities as State’s Attorney.”
Kenney’s campaign echoed much of the criticism that local law enforcement leveled at George, arguing that restorative justice was not appropriate for repeat offenders, denouncing her traffic stop policy as “radical,” and highlighting upticks in theft as evidence of George’s leniency on crime.
But the criticism failed tosway the county’s voters, and given Vermont’s progressive voter base, the highly visible support from police may have actually hurt Kenney’s chances. George prevailed on Tuesday by a margin of 62 to 38 percent.
George said the last-ditch involvement from law enforcement seemed to spur a dramatic escalation in the amount of hate mail she received during the home stretch of the campaign. At the same time, George said, she suspected that the community would react against the outpouring of police opposition.
“I think they were rightfully pretty angry that they were pawns in this political game that it felt like law enforcement was playing,” George told Bolts.