Inquisition Approves Study of Bastinado Reform

The killing of George Floyd, like the Sandy Hook shootings, were once seen as inflection points. So outrageous they were, that serious criminal justice reform seemed inevitable.

Ha. Ha ha ha. Cough, choke, heave.

On the day of yet another school shooting, we’ve got two stories from here in Vermont that depict, in stark terms, the fading (or faded, if you’re feeling especially doomy, which I am) hopes for real change.

First, we have a depressing VTDigger roundup of this year’s legislative “action” on justice-related bills. Worthy ideas were either consigned to the recycling bin, stripped of all import, or vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott.

Second, we have another spin of the Law Enforcement Merry-Go-Round, as Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling moves on to a much more lucrative position at UVM and his deputy (and former interim Burlington polilce chief) Jennifer Morrison steps in as interim.

I knew this hadn’t been a good year for justice-related legislation, but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was until I read the Digger story. Or as James Lyall, head of the Vermont ACLU, put it, a “long list” of police and justice bills “were either gutted or just defeated outright.”

All followed the well-established pattern. A reform bill is introduced, and the hordes of blue shirts immediately pounce. They are one of the most listened-to lobbies in Montpelier, and they usually get their way. They did, bigly, in 2022.

A bill to restrict qualified immunity for police? Study committee. S.250, a broad reform bill that included a statewide registry of officers with credibility issues? Study committee. A bill to bar secondary traffic stops of the kind often used against motorists of color? Study committee.

All these bills and more ran up against what Rep. Selene Colburn called “the blue wall” — well-organized and vociferous opposition from the law enforcement community that tends to induce bad cases of the willies among legislative Milquetoasts.

Two bills that survived, one to reform expungement rules for nonviolent offenses and the other to reform drug law including a provision equalizing powdered and crack cocaine, were vetoed by Scott. After having passed the Legislative on voice votes. How controversial could they have possibly been?

Digger quotes Schirling as calling for an indefinite time-out on all policing and justice reform. His reasoning? We have to take time to assess the impact of three bills that somehow escaped the study-committee quicksand and became law in 2020, the year of George Floyd’s murder.

Oh really. What, exactly, does a new use-of-force standard (2020) have to do with redefining cocaine (2022)? What does expanding the use of body cameras (2020) have to do with barring secondary traffic stops (2022)? What does improving officer training (2020) have to do with anything 2022?

Can’t you guys walk and chew gum at the same time? Jesus.

Anyway, it’s not his problem anymore, now that he’s leaving DPS in about three weeks to become the University of Vermont’s head of campus safety and various other things. (After what UVM described as a “a highly competitive nationwide search” that somehow ended up with a guy who lives in Burlington.) And earning himself at least a 35% pay raise in the process.

Seven Days referred to this as “slightly better pay” which, no, not even close. From the context, it appears that the “slightly better” characterization may have been Schirling’s own. But here’s what I know. Schirling’s predecessor, Gary Derr, enjoyed an annual salary of $209,304. Schirling’s pay at DPS is $153,837 a year.

I doubt that he’s getting any less than Derr, especially considering that the job description is significantly broader than Derr’s. Schirling will be in charge of more stuff. At the executive level, that always means a pay increase. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Schirling’s salary will be 50% higher, and probably more.

“Slightly better” indeed.

As Schirling steps out, the governor’s typical pattern comes into play. Top official leaves, elevate the deputy. In this case, former Colchester police chief and former Burlington interim chief Jennifer Morrison. You may recall that she left the Queen City’s service because she couldn’t stand the progressives on City Council and in city politics.

Those people can be pretty annoying, sure, but is Montpelier going to be any more tolerable? I think it’s safe to assume that Morrison will have little patience for reform initiatives and won’t be shy about expressing her views. She’ll be one more brick in that blue wall. (And, not for nothin’, six months is the over/under until Scott removes the “interim” tag and gives her the job full-time. That’s what he always does.)

Which is seemingly just what Governor Veto wants. Someone to hold the line against new ideas, progressive thought, ways to improve law enforcement, enhance justice, and curb the iniquities of systemic racism.

By the transitive property of politics, I’ll again say this: Any Democrat or liberal who votes for Phil Scott is not serious about these issues. As long as he is governor, our ability to make positive change will be severely limited.

Of course, given the Democratic Legislature’s performance, maybe that’s just the way they like it. Fine. But don’t let them tell you otherwise.

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