Val Demings’ meteoric rise from the Orlando Police Department to the halls of Congress and a starring role in the impeachment of President Donald Trump has reportedly landed her on the shortlist of contenders to join former Vice President Joe Biden atop the Democratic ticket this fall.
But Demings’ background as former police chief at a department that has been accused of using force excessively, including during her tenure, could prove a challenge on the national stage, particularly when people across the country are protesting in the streets against police brutality.
To national Democrats, Demings is a rising star who has already once taken on Trump. In Central Florida, she’s half of a political and law enforcement power couple, along with husband and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, himself a former Orlando police chief and county sheriff.
“One could argue she is uniquely qualified to help find solutions [and] help craft policies for departments across the country struggling to overcome the image that many of them use force recklessly, particularly against African Americans and other minorities,” said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
But, Jewett cautioned, many progressives “are already not that comfortable with Joe Biden. And if he picks someone who was police chief — even though she’s an African American woman — that might be a deal-breaker for some of those voters.”
As the nation has been roiled by protests since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police, Demings, 63, has touted her law enforcement credentials but also framed herself as a reformer with a strong connection to marginalized and minority communities.
“What happened to George Floyd should not have happened under any circumstances,” Demings told the Orlando Sentinel on Friday. “It certainly was not a deadly force situation, yet deadly force was used.”
As a first step, Demings said all restraints above the shoulders, such as the one used on Floyd by police, should be banned immediately.
“Whether you’re a 10-person agency or a 36,000-person agency, just do it,” she said. “Just ban all neck restraints.”
But beyond that, Demings said, “We also need to look at hiring standards, training standards, use of force policies, de-escalation training. We need to look at diversity. We do have to look at pay and benefits because we get what we pay for. ... Because this is not sustainable.”
‘Calm under pressure'
Demings joined the Orlando Police Department in 1983. She married Jerry Demings, then a fellow officer, in 1988. She eventually served as a patrol officer, detective, public information officer, and internal affairs supervisor, and oversaw security at Orlando International Airport after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After being appointed chief by Mayor Buddy Dyer in 2007 — the first woman chief in the agency’s history — she launched Operation Positive Direction, a mentoring program for at-risk students, and Operation Free Palms to clean up the troubled Palms Apartments.
As her staff director, she selected then-Lt. John Mina, who has since gone on to serve as Orlando police chief and is currently Orange County’s sheriff.
“I could never beat her into work,” he recalled. “I tried to get in by 7 and she was always here before me and, at the end of the day, I would always leave before her.”
Dyer said Demings was “very cool and calm under pressure. She had good intuition, [and] she’s a rise-to-the-occasion type of person.”
Demings was credited with reducing violent crime in the city by 40% at the time of her retirement from the department in 2011, something Mina said was a top priority of hers, along with improving communication with the city’s under-served areas.
Mina recalled taking Demings to the scene of a crime in 2009 that stunned the city: The mass shooting at the Gateway Center, at the time the city’s first in 25 years. A former employee of engineering firm RS&H, Jason Rodriguez, had gone on a rampage, killing 26-year-old Otis Beckford and wounding five others. Rodriguez was arrested after a 2½-hour manhunt.
Months earlier, Demings had suffered a significant embarrassment: Someone broke into her unlocked Chevy Tahoe that February and stole a duffel bag from the floor of the vehicle. It held her agency-issued 9 mm Sig Sauer gun, ammunition, handcuffs, and baton.
An internal affairs investigation found she had pressed the remote to lock the SUV but failed to check the handles to make sure it had worked. She was issued a written censure. The gun was not recovered.
Agency accused of brutality
OPD was dogged by allegations of excessive force during her tenure, a reputation that preceded her and lingered after she left.
An Orlando Sentinel investigation found that, between 2010 and 2014, Orlando officers used force in 5.6% of arrests, more than double the rate of some other agencies, including Tampa’s. OPD officers also disproportionately used force on black suspects, who accounted for 55% of the use-of-force cases but 28% of the city’s population.
The Sentinel’s review covered the final 17 months of Demings’ tenure, as well as the full run of her successor, Paul Rooney, and the start of Mina’s time as chief.
In an interview Thursday, Dyer disputed the Sentinel’s findings, saying there wasn’t “much disparity between the OPD numbers and other numbers" from the rest of the state and nation.
Demings said she stands by her record.
“Before I was a law enforcement officer, I was a social worker," she said. “And I took a social worker’s heart to that job. Everybody in Orlando who was watching saw me be very effective on violent crime offenders but also realize we cannot arrest our way out of our problems."
Demings also was chief when Officer Travis Lamont slammed 84-year-old World War II veteran Daniel Daley to the ground, breaking his neck. Lamont said Daley was belligerent about his car being towed.
Demings determined the officer’s “dynamic takedown" was “within department guidelines,” but a federal jury later awarded Daley $880,000. Between 2010 and 2014, the city or its insurer paid $3.6 million to resolve excessive-force lawsuits or claims.
Mark NeJame, the attorney who represented Daley, called Demings a “great” chief, noting she ordered a review of the agency’s use of force policy after the Daley incident that he said prompted changes.
“I thought she listened,” he said. “I think she found the appropriate balance of good community service and being aware and sensitive to the needs of the community and also recognizing and supporting good law enforcement."
William Ruffier, a College Park attorney who pursued excessive force lawsuits against OPD during and after Demings’ tenure, said her “hands were tied” when it came to officer discipline, due to a strong union and a practice of using prior discipline against officers as precedent.
“The punishments were so minimal and so light for so many years, probably preceding Val Demings, that officers basically had impunity to punish people and get away with it,” he said.
Demings said what happened to Daley “was a policy failure. ... And so I made some changes to our policy. ... And that’s all I have to say about that. Was it an unfortunate incident? And do I wish it had not happened? Of course, I do. But we have to move on.”
Despite having butted heads with her department, both NeJame and Ruffier said Demings would be a good choice for Biden’s running mate.
“I support Val Demings,” Ruffier said. “I think her heart’s in the right place.”
‘A unique perspective’
Central Florida progressives, meanwhile, had a more negative reaction to the idea of Demings on the Biden ticket.
Lawanna Gelzer, a community activist and a frequent critic of OPD policies and Dyer’s administration, said Demings’ record will become a problem if she’s chosen to run with Biden, once voters read up on her.
She cited Demings’ sponsorship of the 2018 “Protect and Serve Act,” which would have categorized crimes against police as hate crimes. The bill, which passed the House but not the Senate, was opposed by the ACLU, NAACP, and other groups.
Gelzer criticized Demings’ proposed police reforms as focusing on internal policy changes, rather than giving communities greater oversight, such as through independently elected citizen review boards.
“If you’re going to talk about improving relations, you’ve got to talk about empowering the community and making sure that they’re not disadvantaged from the get-go,” Gelzer said.
Stephanie Porta, executive director of the liberal group Organize Florida, said Democrats would be “incredibly tone-deaf" to pick Demings.
Demings “has had opportunities to push for reforms for years,'' Porta said. “Where has she been? Now she’s speaking up when she is trying to be the vice-presidential candidate? ... But now that a huge majority of Americans support the protesters, she’s on the side of the protesters.”
Porta said she supported Demings in her runs for Congress. But she said choosing Demings because Democrats want to “check the box[es]" of both African Americans and police would be a mistake.
"We need people to actually take action and use their power to reform the system,” Porta said. "And she has not done that.”
Asked about such criticism, Demings cited the first three black officers who served at the Orlando Police Department in 1951.
“The community didn’t want them, and the police department didn’t want them,” Demings said. “But both the police department and the community needed them. Those men went through hell to pave the way for people who look like me to be hired on police departments, to make it better. Did I make it perfect? No, but I did my part.”
She added that the Floyd protesters were marching in part “for black people to have equal opportunities to be police chief, and to be sheriff, and to be president and to serve in Congress. That’s what the movement is all about.”
Dyer said Demings’ background would only benefit the Democratic ticket.
Demings "would energize young voters, especially with the things that are going on right now,” Dyer said. And, "on a personal level, it’d be pretty nice to have the vice president’s cell phone number in my phone. I’ve never had that.”