Former cop Demings faces progressive pushback in veepstakes
ORLANDO — Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is coming under intense scrutiny from progressives over her record as Orlando police chief a decade ago, posing a potential hurdle to her prospects of becoming Joe Biden’s running mate.
Biden is facing growing pressure to pick an African American woman as his vice president following nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
And many Democrats have pointed to Demings, a second-term Florida congresswoman, as someone who could straddle the emotional divide over police reform: a former police chief who can speak personally about police brutality and systemic racism against blacks but who insulates Democrats from GOP charges they are soft-on-crime liberals.
But as Demings’s star rises, some Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other progressive activists are taking aim at her tenure as Orlando’s first female police chief, which spanned 2007 to 2011, and they are questioning whether someone who spent a decades-long career in law enforcement is right for this moment.
“While she was chief of police, I felt like public policies and changes to address community policing should have been done. It was not,” said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network’s Central Florida chapter. “We’ve had a problem here for years.”
“I will go vote, but I will not vote for her if she’s on that ticket,” Gelzer added. “Biden needs to listen to the people of Orlando and of Florida and elsewhere — not law enforcement — at this time.”
Similarly, some BLM activists told The Hill that Demings, or anyone else who wore a police uniform, is a non-starter for them as a vice presidential candidate.
“She’s a cop. She was a top cop at an extremely brutal police department. She was a vocal supporter of brutal actions by police,” said Hawk Newsome, who co-founded BLM’s Greater New York chapter with his sister, congressional candidate Chivona Newsome.
“We are working to abolish police. We are working to defund police,” Hawk said in a phone interview. “When you are a police officer, you are not black anymore. You are blue.”
He then turned to his sister and asked if Biden should pick a police officer as his VP. “Hell no!” she screamed from across the room.
A 2015 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel into the city’s police department found that from 2010 to 2014 — a period partially overlapping Demings’s tenure — officers used force 3,100 times, including kicking, pepper-spraying or shocking suspects.
And Orlando police used force more frequently on black suspects, the newspaper found, mirroring findings elsewhere in the country. Some 55 percent of use-of-force incidents involved blacks, though only 28 percent of the city’s population is black. Seven of the 10 people shot to death by officers were black.
In one case highlighted by the Sentinel, Marcus Cull, a black man, was shot in the back by Officer Carlos Villaverde in 2011 after being mistaken for a robbery suspect. Cull sued Villaverde, the city of Orlando and another officer involved in 2014, alleging they violated his civil rights, but a judge ruled that Villaverde did not violate Cull’s constitutional rights.
Demings, 63, was not available for an interview, a spokesman said. But she has consistently defended her tenure as police chief, and she did so again during a call with reporters this week.
Addressing the Sentinel report, she pointed out she was chief of police during only a year and a half of the five-year period analyzed.
Demings also noted that Orlando police may have been more transparent than other agencies in reporting use-of-force incidents, leading to higher numbers. Additionally, she said the majority of officers who used force during her tenure were working in downtown Orlando’s bar scene between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m., posing “unique challenges” for officers.
“We hired the brightest and the best, with the right mind and right heart to do the job in that they had the training, including de-escalation training so they would not have to go hands on,” Demings said on the call.
And as protests have raged in Orlando and other cities, Demings has positioned herself as a strong advocate of the bold police reforms that House Democrats will bring to the floor next week.
“As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?” Demings wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post days after Floyd’s death.
The scrutiny of Demings comes as Biden himself faces pressure from the left to change his own policies on policing, in part over his involvement in drafting a 1994 crime bill widely seen as having led to a surge in the incarceration rates of African Americans.
Biden’s team is vetting a small group of potential running mates that includes four black women: Demings, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who herself is grappling with police-brutality incidents in her city.
Harris is seen as the battle-tested front-runner for the nomination. But like Demings, Harris’s own law enforcement background as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general has come under focus as activists question her criminal justice record and the Golden State’s disproportionate imprisonment of blacks.
Still, one alum from the Obama-Biden campaign called Demings “an incredible talent and an excellent option. She connects well with everyday folks of all stripes.” But the source added: “The fly in the ointment may be her police record, particularly during these times.”
Meanwhile, Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said Demings’s police background could be helpful overall.
“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,” Seawright said. “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 poor, the youngest of seven children born to working-class parents in Jacksonville. Her father worked the orange groves; her mother was a housekeeper. Early on, she attended segregated schools. Demings frequently recounts that at her first integrated school, her teacher picked for her first position of authority: safety patrol.
After college and a brief stint as a social worker, Demings joined the Orlando Police Department in 1984 and climbed the ranks to become police chief in 2007. Her husband, Jerry Demings, who held the position before her, went on to win election as sheriff of Orange County and in 2018 became the first black mayor of that county. They have three children.
Progressives have voiced concerns over the central Florida power couple’s close ties to law enforcement.
“Not only do I think a lot of misconduct happened on her watch, I also believe that that standard went into the policing that continues today,” said Corrine Daly, an organizer at Orlando Revolution, an affiliate of progressive group Our Revolution.
“It’s clear there’s been ties between the policing and our policy,” Daly said. “There’s definitely some heavy handed excessive police force.”
To combat some of the criticism, Demings has highlighted her personal experience with racism and her work as a social worker “dealing with broken families and broken children.”
“I’ve been on both sides of this issue, as a social worker and as a law enforcement officer,” she said on the call. “As a law enforcement officer, I took my social worker mind and heart to the job, quickly realizing that we could not arrest our way out of making better, stronger communities, that we had to address some of the social ills that occurred in the first place.”
But activists say Demings’s latest response to police brutality is no more than “lip service.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” Gelzer, of the National Action Network, said. “She has yet to pick up the phone and call and talk to use about the issues that we’re dealing with.”
Demings first ran for Congress in 2012 but was narrowly defeated by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.). Four years later, after redistricting, she ran again and won, taking office shortly before Trump was sworn in.
As a backbencher, Demings kept a low profile on Capitol Hill, but she burst onto the national scene in January when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped her as one of seven House impeachment managers in the historic Senate impeachment trial of Trump.
Demings is extremely popular in the House Democratic Caucus, especially among her female colleagues. Rep. Lois Frankel, a fellow Florida Democrat who co-chairs the Women’s Caucus, has been leading a group of lawmakers who’ve publicly and privately lobbied the Biden campaign to choose Demings.
“We need people with impeccable moral clarity who are very strong and very brave, and that really defines her,” Frankel, the former mayor of West Palm Beach, said. “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.”
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