Straw Men and Uppity Women (UPDATED)

So the big question on #vtpoli Twitter today was: Did Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling call Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky “uppity”?

Short answer: Yeah, kinda.

See note below: Schirling has issued a kinda-apology.

It happened in a Thursday hearing by the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees, to consider a statewide use-of-force policy for law enforcement personnel. I didn’t monitor the hearing live, but after seeing some outraged tweets, I listened to the passage in question. (One of the benefits of the Zoom Legislature is that all hearings are streamed live, and archived, on YouTube. I hope they continue the practice after We All Return To Whatever Normal Is.)

Vyhovsky and Schirling had a lengthy colloquy about current policy and practice. She questioned whether police should be trained, “first and foremost,” in de-escalation tactics instead of resorting to force. Schirling acknowledged the need to review training practices, but said her premise (that police use force more often than they should because of the training they receive) was dead wrong.

I’ll go through the confab in more detail after the jump, but first we’ll cut to the chase. At the end of the back-and-forth, Schirling made reference to “the somewhat uppity exchange that the Representative and I had.” He paused before “uppity.” I think he was searching for the right word. He chose the wrong one.

He did not actually refer to Vyhovsky as “uppity,” but that’s how he characterized their discussion. The problem is, “uppity” is often used to describe women or people of color who don’t “know their place.” It definitely has a pejorative connotation. And I doubt he would characterize himself as “uppity.”

Schirling committed another offense, albeit a very common one, elsewhere in the exchange. He consistently misinterpreted Vyhovsky’s points and instead whaled away at straw men of his own devising. He didn’t take her arguments seriously. Which is a subtler kind of sexism than calling someone “uppity.”

Vykovsky kicked things off with a lengthy question. She drew a contrast between her social-worker training (de-escalation) and police training (“first and foremost, use of force”), pointed to Germany’s de-escalation oriented training and much lower incidence of police violence, and asked “What would it take to reorient Vermont’s training away from force?”

Schirling said he agreed there was a need to “shift the training construct, which we’ve been talking about for more than a year.” But he objected to Vyhovsky’s assertion that police training is force-oriented.

“Vermont police are not trained in use of force first,” he said. “They’ve tried to engaged communities and solve problems at the lowest level first… and use force only when necessary.”

Fair enough. But then he pressed his case with some nice but irrelevant statistics. “The Vermont State Police responded to 125,000 events on average over the last three years,” he said. “They used force less than 200 times per year.”

I don’t think Vyhovsky would claim that police violence is rampant. In fact, she said so later in the conversation. What she would and did say is that the number could, and should, be lower.

There was a brief interjection by former Burlington police chief Jennifer Morrison, who is now on the state payroll as an assistant to Schirling. He then followed with more nice-sounding but irrelevant statistics. “There are over 200 troopers in the State Police,” he said. “We have under 200 uses of force a year. On average, that’s less than one per trooper per year.”

Again, nobody’s arguing that troopers are roaming the streets and highways, putting the boot into any civilian they come across. It’s more about reducing even further the rare incidents of police violence.

Vyhovsky defended her claim about force-first training. “I’ve heard testimony… that there is no mandate for de-escalation training, so there is obviously an emphasis on use of force over de-escalation.” She then again compared police training to social-work instruction. “You said it is impossible to de-escalate certain situations. I will tell you in my work as a social worker, if our focus is first on de-escalation, that is simply not true.”

Hackles raised, Schirling fired back. “I don’t want this to turn into an argument, but when you roll up… to a pharmacy where someone is wielding a sword and running at people, what would you suggest?”

OK, let’s count up the number of times a sword-waving maniac is encountered in a drug store. Maybe it happened one time? He’s using an extreme example to evade Vyhovsky’s real point.

“I’m not saying use of force is never an option,” she said. “What I’m saying is there are plenty of instances where we have seen people in a mental health crisis die because people weren’t properly trained in de-escalation. …I’m just saying there are plenty of places where de-escalation would actually work.””

Schirling returned to his “125,000 calls a year, less than 200 violent incidents” straw man, and then began punching another one. “I cannot disagree strongly enough with the premise that there is a widespread, fundamental problem here,” he said.
There is enormous area for improvement, but it is incremental improvement to make very good operations even better.”

Again, he’s taking Vyhovsky’s argument to an extreme. And being very protective of law enforcement personnel and practices, while at the same time acknowledging the “enormous area for improvement.”

Which is it, Mr. Commissioner?

To me, Vyhovsky’s questioning was pointed and uncomfortable, but well within the bounds of a lawmaker quizzing a witness. Schirling’s defenses were raised by her tone and persistence. (It’d be fair to ask whether he’d treat a male lawmaker the same way.) She didn’t treat him with the respect-slash-obsequiousness that lawmakers usually offer when a law enforcement official gives testimony. She roughed him up a little, and he didn’t like it.

And that’s on him.

UPDATE. Near the end of the day, Schirling issued a sort-of apology. After the hearing, he said, “I was made aware that a word I used has a disturbing history that I was previously unaware of.” Which is a great argument for getting more women, and people of color, in high positions. They are crushingly aware of the meaning of those words.

He concluded with the magic sentence, “I apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by this.” Which is, as I’ve said many times before, NOT an apology. It puts the onus on those who were offended. He has accepted no personal responsibility; he’s just the unknowing victim of a vocabularial bear-trap.


1 thought on “Straw Men and Uppity Women (UPDATED)

  1. Walter Carpenter

    “She didn’t treat him with the respect-slash-obsequiousness that lawmakers usually offer when a law enforcement official gives testimony. She roughed him up a little, and he didn’t like it.”

    Good for her. I wish more lawmakers were like that and not just for police either, but with health insurance/hospital CEOs, and so on.


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