U.S. Rep. Val Demings’ background as Orlando, Fla.'s first female police chief could complicate her chances of becoming Joe Biden’s running mate.So
U.S. Rep. Val Demings’ background as Orlando, Fla.’s first female police chief could complicate her chances of becoming Joe Biden’s running mate.
Some critics of Demings – who is reportedly on Biden’s shortlist — say she sided too frequently with police officers accused of using excessive force during her four-year tenure leading Orlando’s police department (2007-2011).
In one case, a 26-year-old officer slammed an 84-year-old veteran to the ground, breaking the victim’s neck, according to Politico. Demings said the officer’s technique was within department guidelines. A jury later awarded the victim $880,000 in damages.
But her stance appears to have changed to some degree since becoming a congresswoman in January 2017. Demings has been an outspoken voice on police reform amid anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in late May. She co-sponsored the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” and in a May 29 Washington Post op-ed, she wrote, “As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?”
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“When an officer engages in stupid, heartless and reckless behavior, their actions can either take a life or change a life forever,” she continued. “Bad decisions can bring irrevocable harm to the profession and tear down the relationships and trust between the police and the communities they serve. Remember, law enforcement needs that trust just as the public does. Think before you act!”
Another incident during Deming’s tenure cited by Politico, however, involved the department standing behind an officer who allegedly pushed a woman down a set of stairs. A video the department had seen allegedly showed the officer push her but the department only took away two vacation days and suspended him for 16 hours for filing a false report.
As deputy chief, Demings lessened his punishment further. She said she had no choice because of a technicality.
The officer was ordered by a judge to pay the woman’s medical bills.
In the six years since Demings left the Orlando force, it has seen drops both in the annual average of incidents of use of force and in use of force against Black men and women, Politico reported.
Demings told Politico that while serving as police chief, she “worked to review and make policy changes.”
“The goal of police work should always be to keep people safe and resolve dangerous situations without injury,” she said.
She also stressed her work on community policing programs.
“Building fair, safe, strong communities is exactly what police work can and should be,” she said.
She also told NPR that the department launched an early warning system while she was chief to better track officers of concern.
In 2008, Demings wrote an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, defending the department against an Orlando Weekly story that accused the department of too frequently siding with officers in community complaints.
“Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer in a church,” she wrote, according to Politico. “It won’t take long to find one. Law enforcement officers deal with ‘negatives’ all day, every day. When people summon the police, chances are things are not going well.”
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Lawanna Gelzer, a community activist and critic of the Orlando police, told Politico she “never saw any changes in policies. I never found anything to bridge the strain between policing in the community. I saw over-policing. The same patterns continued during [her] administration that we’re still dealing with today in Orlando.”
Charlene Carruthers, with the Movement for Black Lives, told Time, Demings was “a leader within an institution that is inherently violent, racist, patriarchal and protective of capitalism. It’s not simply enough to have someone who looks like me as the vice-presidential nominee. I’m interested in someone who shares my values and is aligned with our vision.”
Still, others who know Demings have been quick to defend her character and view her three-decade law enforcement resume as an asset.
“We need people with impeccable moral clarity who are very strong and very brave, and that really defines her,” fellow Florida U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel said, according to The Hill. “She was a sheriff in a big municipality for years so she knows the domestic issues very well, and as a member of Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, she’s got her foreign-policy chops.”
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright told The Hill, “Her being able to speak to a broad range of issues, and being able to relate to them through her sets of experiences, I think that matters. I definitely think her law enforcement background is a positive attribute, and definitely being a Black woman from a place where it’s important not only for us to compete, but possibly win, and that’s Florida.”
Demings grew up in a working-class family and became the first in her family to get a college degree. She joined the Orlando Police Department at a time when she said most of the officers didn’t look like her. After she left the department in 2011, she was elected to Congress in Florida in 2016 and is currently serving her second term. She got national notice earlier this year when she served as a House manager during President Trump’s impeachment trial.
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Both Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar have been similarly criticized over their careers as prosecutors. Klobuchar took herself out of the running to Biden’s VP pick last month, while Harris is still considered to be on the shortlist.