The Resolute Gatekeeper

Gee, and I thought I was done using this image.

Before adjourning, the Vermont Legislature put a down payment on justice reform by passing S.219, which would ban chokeholds and similar… uhh… “restraint techniques” (such a bloodless descriptor) and require that state police wear body cameras. The bill awaits action by Gov. Phil Scott.

The chokehold thing illustrates a broader problem with law enforcement practices. We’ve seen time and again that officers are quick to employ chokeholds and pile on top of prone suspects and use whatever the term of art is for “knee on the neck,” as well as Tasers, pepper spray, rubber projectiles, tear gas, flashbangs and other sublethal weapons. Sublethal but still painful and dangerous, and far too often employed on peaceful protesters and suspects who are already under control. Or on bystanders, such as the reporter who lost an eye to a rubber-bullet impact during a Minneapolis protest.

But that’s a sermon for another Sunday. I’m here to point out a big problem with S.219 and other well-meaning proposals for reining in the excesses of the police. That’s the guy who makes the decisions on whether or not to bring charges — Attorney General TJ Donovan.

The same Donovan who, until this month according to VPR, has examined 18 excessive-force cases involving police officers — and brought charges in only one of those cases. The same Donovan who’s been frantically trying to get ahead of the crowd on justice reform so he can show “leadership.”

But beyond his nearly universal backing of questionable police conduct, there’s the newly reopened case of Joel Daugreilh, the former St. Albans police officer who, in 2017, pepper sprayed a suspect who was already handcuffed and secured in a cell.

Daugreilh’s supervisor determined that the action was “clearly over the line.” The city referred the case to Donovan’s office for possible criminal charges. And he chose not to bring any.

Well, not at the time. He reopened his probe in January, just after VPR requested records of the case. Convenient timing, no?

Donovan’s explanation to VPR was that in reviewing case records, he discovered new information that caused him to conclude that “I think I might have gotten this wrong.”

At the very least, this indicates a sloppy initial investigation and/or a rush to judgment in favor of the officer. At worst, Donovan is flat-out lying, and reopened the case solely because of potential media scrutiny. Also, from VPR’s story published on January 13:

A new expert will review the case and issue an opinion in a couple of weeks, Donovan said. He also promised to release body camera footage of the incident, regardless of whether his office files charges.

“A couple of weeks.” And, “promised to release body camera footage.”

After that, nothing for almost six months. On Monday, Donovan’s office announced the filing of charges against Daugreilh — bringing the AG’s career record on police misconduct to a sterling 2-17. He still hasn’t released the video, but he has promised further comment after Daugreilh’s arraignment, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. (This is being written Tuesday morning.)

If the governor signs S.219 into law, Donovan is the gatekeeper. His track record doesn’t inspire much confidence that he would call these cases down the middle.

Bear this in mind when Donovan puts on his SJW hoodie and hits the campaign trail, seeking the Democratic nomination and another term in office. Is this the person you can trust to implement an overhaul of the criminal justice system?

Here’s another thing for justice-reform-minded voters to ponder. The new Golden Child of Vermont politics is Molly Gray, whose candidacy for lieutenant governor has attracted support from many of the Democratic Party’s top figures. She’s an assistant attorney general, working under Donovan, still on the job as she campaigns after hours. And she, for obvious reasons, is not free to comment on her boss’ track record on police misconduct.

Would she be a dynamic leader in the struggle for justice reform? Would she be an apologist for business as usual? Or, more likely, would she be yet another incrementalist who makes strong statements about the issue but delivers, at best, minor tweaks to the system?

The questions must be asked, about Donovan and about Gray.

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