Crime and Justice

Safety chief apologizes for describing exchange with female lawmaker as ‘uppity’

Michael Schirling
Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, September 6, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 4:46 p.m.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling apologized for using the word “uppity” to describe a heated exchange with a female lawmaker Thursday after he was roundly criticized by legislators.

Schirling used the word, which has both sexist and racist connotations, to characterize his back-and-forth with Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Town, during a committee discussion about police use of force. 

His exact turn of phrase was: “the somewhat uppity exchange the representative and I just had.” 

Women in the Legislature quickly took to Twitter to express dismay that the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety would use the word.

“Trying to make sense of #VT Department of Public Safety commissioner calling @tanyavforvt ‘uppity’ in a committee hearing on use of force just now,” tweeted the Progressive caucus leader, Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.

Colburn’s message linked to an article from The Atlantic magazine describing the word’s historical use to denigrate those seen as overstepping their hierarchical position, particularly women and people of color. 

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel and Reps. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, and Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, also tweeted out messages criticizing Schirling.

Schirling quickly apologized Thursday morning.

“Shortly after testimony this morning, I was made aware that a word I used has a disturbing history that I was previously unaware of,” Schirling said in a statement to VTDigger.  

“I appreciate it being brought to my attention so swiftly and am saddened by the history of language being weaponized against so many in this country. I apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by this,” he said.

The exchange occurred during a joint hearing with the House judiciary and government operations committees. Vyhovsky took Schirling to task over how Vermont law enforcement officers are trained.

Tanya Vyhovsky of Rights & Democracy Vermont speaks at a press conference calling for raising the minimum wage to $15/hr at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vyhovsky, a social worker, said police should prioritize de-escalation tactics over use of force.

Schirling took umbrage at her comment. The Vermont State Police are trained to de-escalate situations, he said, and the “vast majority” of incidents involving that agency result in zero violence.

“We have seen people have their heads bashed into the cement because people weren’t trained properly in de-escalation,” said Vyhovsky. “I’m not saying there is never a place. I’m simply saying that there are plenty of places where actually de-escalation would work.”

“I cannot disagree strongly enough with the premise that there is a widespread fundamental problem here with the way in which Vermont law enforcement is trained and operates,” Schirling responded.

The back-and-forth was broken up by Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, chair of the House Committee on Government Operations, and the discussion moved along to other topics.

But before the meeting adjourned, Schirling raised his disagreement with Vyhovsky and described it as “the somewhat uppity exchange the representative and I just had.”

Both Vyhovsky and Rep. Felisha Leffler, R-Enosburg, looked at their computer cameras in disbelief.

“I was shocked and appalled,” Vyhovsky told VTDigger Thursday afternoon. “That word has no place in our committees; it has no place as we are discussing trying to build a public safety system that welcomes all Vermont voices. That language immediately shuts out so many of the voices that our police policies disproportionately impact.”

Vyhovsky said she had been communicating with Schirling by email since the end of the committee hearing and was glad to hear him take “ownership for the harm that he caused” by using the word.

The incident will not prevent her from continuing a professional working relationship with the commissioner, she said, but it does change the dynamic.

“It certainly does give me pause,” Vyhovsky said. “I hope the commissioner and all of us will continue to do our work and be conscious and, when we know better, make a commitment to doing better.”

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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