Hands up! Don't shoot!
Hands up! Don't Shoot!
It's kind of hard to believe that it's only been two years since the cell phone video of the murder of George Floyd appeared to convince many people in America that the criminal justice system was rife with racial inequality and that the police might be part of the problem.
No racist, Police! No racist, Police! Abolish the police. Let's go, disbar, defund abolish the police.
Needless to say, the mood has changed.
As crime rises in New York City, critics say the state's far left policies are to blame.
Sadly, the violence plaguing major cities has become all too common as far left leaders refuse to take the issue of violent crime seriously and instead continued to coddle violent offenders as cities descend into lawlessness.
And that means it's a new day for those people who thought they were able to bring about reform. That's especially true for progressive prosecutors, those district attorneys around the country who call for bail reform or push for alternative sentencing or restorative justice programs, who try to prosecute police officers after shootings. They've seen that massive tide of public support fall off. They've seen recall efforts of people who think like they do in San Francisco and Los Angeles and in their toughest moments may have felt.
Like the community might no longer be with me.
So how are these progressive prosecutors moving forward? Have they lost momentum now that there's no chanting in the streets to propel them?
Abolish the Police!
I'm Audie CORNISH. And this is the assignment. Think of a local prosecutor as the gatekeeper, the criminal justice system. Police investigate crimes and turn in evidence, but prosecutors decide who gets charged and with what. And prosecutors can choose not to seek jail time for misdemeanors or to hold police officers accountable for excessive force. In Austin, Texas, Jose Garza won the race for district attorney in Travis County, and he knew that he and several so-called progressive prosecutors had come to power on the coattails of the summer of unrest in 2020. And since he took office in January 2021, Garza has brought criminal charges against more than a dozen police officers.
I am here in this office in no small part thanks to years of advocacy and organizing on behalf of community members who are most at risk for crime and violent crime, who are asking for a different way forward.
Sarah George is state's attorney of Chittenden County, that's in Vermont, and she was already in office in 2020. Still, she says, that moment felt like a boost. She opposes seeking cash bail from defendants that have not committed violent crimes and has avoided prosecuting alleged crimes, discovered through what she calls nonpublic safety traffic stops, which disproportionately impact people of color. But before they were in power, they each had their own awakenings, a moment that informed their politics and how they think about the criminal justice system. And that's where we started our conversation.
I did grow up in a neighborhood where violence was constant around me. I was mugged, actually walking home from church. The summer between my eighth and ninth grade year. And it was an off duty police officer who ran out of his house to to break up the mugging. But I also had an experience as a college freshman.
Where can we go back to walking home from church, though? Because that's pretty sure that's pretty traumatic for that age.
Well, it is. You know, I think it's an experience that isn't unlike the experience of a lot of kids in inner city San Antonio and in inner cities across the country.
But was it actually scary for you as a person? I mean, what what do you actually remember about that day?
Yeah, I remember. So luckily it happened on the street where my grandparents lived. And so I remember getting up and running as fast as I could into my grandparents house and collapsing on on my grandfather's sofa in tears. I was terrified. And then, you know, a couple of the kids were students at the high school that I was about to enter. And so I remember being terrified of seeing them in school.
And this off duty police officer?
Well, you know, that day. You know, I was I was incredibly grateful for him. But, you know, he was more than just an off duty police officer, he was our neighbor. You know, we we grew up in a pretty tight knit neighborhood. My father lived a block over from where my grandparents lived. And we knew all of the the neighbors. And that's what he was. He was a neighbor who worked as a police officer and saw what was happening and ran out to intervene.
What's interesting about that story is you understand what it means to be a victim, but you also understand what it means to, like, live in a community where those lines are a little blurry.
Absolutely. You know, I think in my neighborhood, people had a complex relationship with law enforcement. Just a few years later, I was stopped in that same neighborhood coming home from college for the weekend. I was pulled over. And the you know, the officers who pulled me over, tore my car apart, you know, put their hands in my pockets, were rude to me. I was a freshman at the University of Texas, and they told me that they didn't believe that a kid from that neighborhood was going to U.T. And so I think, you know, those two experiences were similar to the kinds of experiences that everyone in that neighborhood had.
Sarah George, is there a moment where you had a sort of understanding of crime and criminal justice? Sort of. How old were you?
Oh, that's a great question. Probably much older than most folks. I mean, I am a white woman who grew up in Vermont, so I was certainly pretty privileged and not super exposed to a lot of that. I would say that the first time I was really cognizant of it was probably in college when I was, you know, involved in athletics. And for the first time in my life, surrounded by people of color and found myself sort of in cars with them and having, you know, getting pulled over at significantly more rates than I had ever been pulled over in my life.
Connecticut. Okay. The University of Connecticut, you know, walking with a black male friend of mine and and hearing doors lock as we were walking by and them sort of making comments about it, you know, things like.
Did you hear those doors or were they pointed out to you?
No, I, I, I did not hear it the first time it happened. And my friend mentioned it to me and then I noticed it several other times after that, throughout our friendship and being on campus with him and, and just stories from them about their experiences really opened my eyes. And then I, I was in graduate school for forensic psychology and I went to prisons pretty regularly through that program and the way that people were treated in those jails and the significant portion of people in those in those cages, being black and brown, was probably that sort of second eye opening experience for me.
Do both of you kind of affiliate yourself with the movement we saw out of 2020, right, that had grown out of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Absolutely. I mean, let me just say in my case that I am here in this office in no small part thanks to years of advocacy and organizing on behalf of community members who are most at risk for crime and violent crime, who are asking for a different way forward.
Yeah, and I certainly do as well. I would just note that I've been in this position since January of 2017 and I've been a prosecutor in this office since January of 2011, so certainly been doing this work in this particular way for longer than just 2020, but I do feel that that Black Lives Matter movement has certainly propelled the work to a different level, and it has gotten the community engaged at a level that it wasn't prior.
So when 2020 hits and other people start to have this reckoning or understanding, what are you feeling?
I was feeling like, welcome to this conversation and welcome to this reality that so many people in our community have been facing their entire lives.
Did you come away from that period of time thinking, well, now I'm going to have the wind at my back a little bit like now, now maybe we're going to get a chance to have these conversations beyond the activists.
I did. Yeah, I really did. Because for the first time, I had more legislators coming to me asking, you know, what my office was doing and how they might be able to mimic that in legislation. And I just had more, you know, sort of, regular, for lack of a better word, sort of regular people that had just not been engaged in these conversations before, that not only were engaged in conversations with me, but they were engaged in conversations with their neighbors and their legislators and their book clubs and their, you know, their mom groups or whatever it might be. I could tell that these conversations were happening at a significant amount more than they were prior and I felt like that was going to be a huge push and a huge advantage for me going forward in this work.
So even though it was an uphill battle, right? I mean, you knew kind of culturally in the criminal justice system, it would be an uphill battle, these kinds of reforms. You felt that public support might make it even just a little bit easier.
It makes it significantly easier. Public support is, in my view, key and crucial to success and key and crucial to feeling supported in this work. I, I think that without it, it's still the right thing to be doing, but it is much harder to feel that momentum and that push on a daily basis if it isn't coming from your community.
So how did that era affect how you saw your job?
You know, for me, unlike Sarah, I had never been a prosecutor before. I took this job. I started my career as a public defender. My approach to this job was just to look really closely at what the data and evidence says about how to best keep our community safe. I had committed early in my election before the George Floyd murder, before these other acts of violence came to light, that one of the changes I would be making is that we would be presenting cases of police misconduct to a grand jury. My predecessor only selectively presented cases to the grand jury, and I thought it was important for the community to be able to decide when a person is harmed at the hands of a law enforcement officer.
After George Floyd, after you have that moment of being like, okay, more people are on board, when does that energy start to wane? When did you feel a shift?
You know, obviously when the George Floyd murder occurred, it was COVID and we had, you know, a significant impact on our community. People were struggling. Our housing crisis was just soaring. People with mental health and substance use disorders are not getting the services they need. We had an uptick in gunfire incidents here, which is really rare in those moments when you could kind of see people struggling around us and everybody talking about it and having police talk about it and people sort of starting to feel unsafe. That momentum definitely started to wane. At least I felt that. I don't know that it actually did, but it it's I certainly felt that impacted me.
When did you feel pushback from, say, your police departments and what form did that take when you when you really understood?
I mean, I feel that every day. I think there was a moment after 2020 where the police union started getting more vocal and more involved in the sort of, frankly, the politics. And with that came a lot of press releases with a lot of inaccurate information and sort of pushing that tough on crime rhetoric and blaming me or my office for being soft on crime. And me hearing from witnesses and victims in the community saying that police in uniform were actively saying those same things.
Can we underscore this? You just said victims as well.
So what were you hearing?
That when victims would call the police or when they would respond to something that officers were making comments about not doing anything because my office wouldn't prosecute those cases or my office wouldn't hold the person accountable or wouldn't do anything about it.
Meaning, we'd like to help you, but our hands are tied and the D.A. probably won't do anything anyway. Yeah, am I mischaracterizing?
No, that's exactly right.
Yeah. And unfortunately, what Sara has described, I think, is something that prosecutors all across the country have seen. We have seen it here in Austin as well. Shortly after I was elected, the former head of the Austin Police Union publicly called on his members not to actively investigate crime. And there are at least some members of the police force who who heeded that call. We have documented multiple instances of community members calling to report crime and being told by law enforcement that because of our office, they can't or won't.
Okay. We wanted to check, so we did reach out to the Burlington Police Officers Association for comment. And in a statement, vice president of the BPOA, Patrick Hartnett, denied Georgia's claim that they pushed a tough on crime rhetoric and stated that they have said on the record that a tough on crime approach alone would not work. And in the case of the Austin Police Association, they denied Garza's claims as well, stating, quote, "Our officers have never stopped investigating crimes and calls for service", but neither denied that they disagreed with the prosecutor's positions. It was pretty clear that neither Jose Garza nor Sara Jorge could count on the police department as a partner in what they call a reform effort.
I think that they do think it's detrimental to their work because it could impact their funding. It could impact their it could impact their work if we were to follow the policies that our officers are trying to implement and push.
So that's impacting you. Then you have the pushback from police and police unions and you start to feel, what?
Like the community, might no longer be with me. Like I didn't feel as confident day to day that the community was with me.
And then that makes you feel what?
Nervous, really. And and really, because I still had, you know, of course you still have the activists. You still have the people that were initially in your corner. They are still sort of knocking at your door and demanding and on top of it. But when I didn't have that general community outreach and demand happening, it made me feel like people were going to want to go back to the way things were and the sort of tough on crime approaches. And then I had a you know, I had a contested primary. So people were not only going to have those feelings, but we're going to have an option.
Go back to tough on crime.
Now that you've sort of survived that process, do you feel like well, you've got another shot. Is that where some of your optimism comes from?
Yeah, I do. And again, I think had it been close, I would have felt a little bit of that, those nerves still. But I think the community was pretty clear that they want more of this. And so I feel optimistic about what we might be able to accomplish in the next four years.
So speaking of the next four years, we're going to talk next about the politics at play, the way that Democrats nationally have struggled with their partnership with the Black Lives Matter movement.
We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police, it's to fund the police. Fund them! Fund them with resources and training. Resources and training they need to protect their community.
More in a minute. Okay. Before the break, we heard the voice of President Joe Biden in his March 20, 22 State of the Union address. And it reflects the discomfort some Democrats have felt regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and its principles. One of the big sort of wedge issues has been the slogan to defund the police in some quarters. That is a very literal, active suggestion. In others, it's the idea that you might reallocate funds to other services. And I think in Austin, right, there was an attempt to cut at least a third of the police department's budget, and then a state law basically forced the city to refund the department. Did that feel like a blow in a way to the reform effort?
I mean, is that a reflection of backlash from the from the Republican establishment in the state of Texas? Absolutely. Republicans seized on this as a wedge issue that they thought they could use to divide. I think predominantly working class communities in this country, we saw it in this past midterm. I don't think it worked to great effect for them. And I think Republicans are continue to use it.
But, you know, President Biden has said we shouldn't defund the police. Right. Like if there's one thing I've noticed is establishment Democrats even really fled from this idea and people sort of saw the defund movement as a proxy for progressive policies on criminal justice. Sara George am I mischaracterizing this or I mean, from your vantage point, how do you see these moments?
One thing I definitely think gets missed a lot in this conversation is that established Democrats do have some blame here as well. I think that they sort of get a pass a lot because the Republican Party is so much louder about a lot of this messaging. But there are a lot of blue states that really haven't made the reform efforts that should have happened and a more fact blocked, I think, by a lot of established Democrats. So I do think that that's an important point. I think any time that particular communities make decisions about the funding and the allocation of funding in their communities, and then the state comes in and changes that, it's absolutely intentional and to send a message about who has that greater power.
There have been several district attorneys who have kind of a similar ideas about reforms as you who have struggled and have even faced recalls or been recalled. So, for instance, the San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin's recall reverberated nationally. And in my research, I was reading about the L.A. district attorney, and he said, you know, one of the mistakes that Chesa made that I learned from and he'll readily recognize is that he was trying to talk to people about data. And people don't care about data. This is about emotions. This is about how you perceive and feel. And he said you cannot use data to deal with feelings. And I think that was a failure. By the time he kind of woke up to that, it was too late for him. Los Angeles, D.A. Gascon. He is saying he took away a personal lesson, and I'm wondering if that resonates with either of you or if you really do feel like this is just completely political?
I think it's both. I mean, obviously, I would never say data is not important. Data is incredibly important and I think that the reality in areas like San Francisco was a crime was down while Chase is in office and even since he's been out, the data shows that crime is up. But if you can't fight the media messaging, then you're going to lose. And that's a really hard fight to take on when millions of dollars is being poured into recall efforts. So you obviously have to continue to tell stories and talk about emotions and how people feel. But you can't give up on the data because it is ultimately where a lot of our policies and principles come from.
Going forward, what are the reforms that you believe still have momentum and which ones not so much?
That's a tough question. I think the ones that still have momentum are police accountability and certainly the allocation of resources to public services, especially through COVID. I think that's even that's gained even more momentum.
Yeah, I agree with Sara. You know, when we started this journey, we talked about the need to build a system where survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence are treated with dignity and respect. We talked about treating substance use disorder like the public health crisis that it is. We talked about building a system that doesn't weigh so heavily on working class communities and communities of color, a system where people aren't sitting in jail simply because they can't afford to get out. And I think every one of those principles still enjoys an enormous amount of support here in our community.
And the reforms you feel like have less momentum behind them at this point?
I don't have anything in mind on that, actually. I really think that the stuff, at least in our community that we're most focused on, still has momentum and with each... yeah.
I don't mean to be tough on you both, but you would be the luckiest people in the world in the political and criminal justice space if you're basically saying you're getting everything you want.
Oh, I'm not getting a lot of it. I just I'm I'm more so just saying that I, I don't think there's particular things that people have just sort of given up on. I think that all of those things are still in the conversation in the same way that they have been. And I think there's a lot of stuff like safe consumption spaces is something I talk about nearly every day and I don't--
What does that mean just for the average person?
People who are using drugs to have a safe space to consume their drugs with with safe supplies and medical personnel nearby to revive them if they overdose. It's something that I talk about nearly every week, but I don't get the impression it's gaining any more or less traction.
Yeah, there's certainly a lot of things that I feel like we are moving very, very slow, harm reduction, certainly being one of them, but I don't think that that means the people that actually care about it or are talking about it any less.
From my perspective, some of the the challenges that we are trying to move beyond are hundreds of years old and it is absolutely fair to point out that, you know, that we have not overhauled our criminal legal system in the last two years. We have an enormous amount of work ahead of us. And, you know, these these fights are not easy. There are stresses and pressures that I know I in my team encounter every day, but they are no more than the regular people who have borne the burden of a broken criminal justice system for for far too long. And I do believe that we are making the changes that we've talked about, that we're going to continue to it's just going to take time, but I think people are with us and they want to see these changes through.
In the end, do you have faith in the criminal justice system still? D.A. Garza?
I do. And I think what I have faith in about our criminal justice system is that it is really a system in many respects that was designed to put power in the hands of of people. Here in Texas, our community gets to decide who their prosecutor is. They get to decide who their judges are. They get to decide who their sheriff is and who their constables are. They get to serve on grand juries and injuries to ultimately decide what outcomes are just. And I think the the changes that you are seeing, although I acknowledge that they are slow, the changes that you see here in Travis County and across the country are because regular people have engaged in our criminal legal system in a new way, again, in a way that that's rooted, I think, in real public safety. And you're starting to see the results.
Before I leave you, what's one thing you want people to understand that you don't think they do? Cause you read the headlines like anyone else.
Oh, there's so much, but I think that the thing that I spend most of my time explaining to people is that the system as it's currently designed and as it currently functions, is not victim centered and a lot of people will use victims as a sort of sword to fight reform efforts when in reality, victims are not currently served adequately, by the way we do things and so most of the ideas that we have about reforming the system are actually far more victim centered and hold offenders accountable in a way that our current system doesn't.
That was Sarah George, State's Attorney for Chittenden County, which is located in Burlington, Vermont, and Jose Garza, Travis County District Attorney who's seat is in Austin, Texas. That's it for this episode of The Assignment. New episodes drop every Thursday, so please listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and review, yes they matter. And one more thing. If you have a story, tip or an assignment for us, a story that you want to hear more about or something that is affecting your community, you can give us a call. Or leave us a voicemail at 202854802. You can also record a voice memo on your phone and e-mail that to us at The Assignment CNN all lowercase at gmail.com. The assignment is a production of CNN audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Laurie Geller Retta. Our associate producers are Isaac Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Htoon. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Our editor is Rina Palta. Mixing and Sound Design by David Shulman. Dan de Zula is our technical director. Abby Fentress Swanson is our executive producer and special thanks to Katie Hinman. I'm Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.