Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Val Demings

The Hill's Steve Clemons interview Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP Democrats seize on Florida pandemic response ahead of general election Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate MORE (D-Fla.).

Read excerpts from the interview below.

 

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Clemons: We see people in the streets protesting over police brutality, over the murder of George Floyd; we have 42 million people unemployed out there right now, and the numbers are probably higher; and we have a pandemic. What should we be focusing on? Because it's such an enormous problem, or set of problems, the nation is facing right now.

Demings: When I was the chief of police, I was appointed during the 2008 and 2009 recession, and so those were tough times but certainly what we're experiencing today, we're dealing with something we've never seen before, which requires us to do something we've never done before. We're dealing with COVID-19, this deadly killer that we had never heard of before. And as you will know now, it's taken over 100,000 lives in this country. We're also dealing with civil unrest as a result of the brutal and senseless murder of George Floyd. My heart goes out to his family and others. And, oh, by the way, it’s hurricane season. And so, you know, when I think about that, that's a lot. But this is America. This is a country that has seen its share of tough times, and I really do believe with all of the challenges that we face if we remember, regardless of the challenge, our number one responsibility is the health, safety and well-being of the American people. We will get through this one as well. We have to remember, as we watch what’s happening in the streets throughout this country what brought us there in the first place. And I heard a young activist say something last night that was just so profound because the reporter was asking her about, you know, or reminding her about the COVID-19 virus and the concern about the spread of the virus that could certainly bring death. And she said, maybe the virus of racism is worse. And while they understand the risks, and we certainly understand the challenges of additional spread of the virus, I had to listen to what that young activist said, because the virus of racism, it just may be worse. And so we'll do what we've always done in this country. We will balance a ton of issues and all of them critical.

 

Clemons: What is your impression of what White House leadership is getting right and what it is getting wrong.

Demings: Well if we want to start with coronavirus, all health experts agree that the sooner we take action, the better we are, the better prepared. We know that the White House eliminated the pandemic response office which certainly could have made a difference in our response, i.e. in the number of lives that were saved. We have to continue to listen to our scientists and our medical professionals, our public health experts. This is a public health crisis, and we have to listen to them. We know that practicing social distancing and wearing masks, something as simple as that can save lives. And so, you know, it would be good to see the president really echo the recommendations coming out of the CDC, and working with the world to develop a vaccine, get us back on track. With civil unrest in our nation, understanding number one what brought us here in the first place. We condone illegal behavior. Those who have seized the opportunity to loot and create destruction and chaos in our streets. We condone that. But we have to remember what brought us here in the first place. And we do expect our leaders, whether Democrats or Republicans, to come together and unify our nation. As we saw during 9/11, President George W. Bush did. We need someone who will exhibit strong leadership, remind us of who we are, unite us. Not be the divider in chief, not threaten and intimidate and use fear. Those things do not solve problems. Coming together as a nation, the beautiful, diverse nation and country that we are — that's what solves problems. And so the president still has time to not make this a political issue, to try to not further divide but to come together, unify us, reassure communities that police misconduct is wrong, that violence of any kind is wrong and that he's gonna put the full weight of the White House behind finding solutions and not creating additional problems.

 

Clemons: As a former chief of police and patrol officer, tell me about police culture when you were in that and what we can do to move the needle on getting into a healthier place.

Demings: I felt compelled to write the op-ed because, look, I grew up at the Orlando Police Department. I consider them family. Many days I spent more time with them than I did with my own family. Watching what happened to Mr. Floyd was just totally unacceptable, totally inappropriate. And I know that there are a lot of good women who do that job, and I just wanted to remind them of who they are and what they are supposed to represent in this country. … We've got to continue to hire the brightest and the best to make sure that we hire people who have the mind for the job, so they'll make good decisions, but also have the heart for the job. … Law enforcement officers wear the badge over their hearts as a constant reminder that they have to police, right. We are a nation of laws, but they should also police with compassion, that there are situations that require them to be as strong as lions but also as gentle as doves. We need them to see themselves as a part of the community and the community to see the police as a part of them. And so we have to get back to taking a good look at law enforcement. You know, everybody needs to start with the checkup of themselves. Look at your policies. Look at how that happened. Look at who you're hiring. Look at paying benefits. We get what we pay for. Look who's training new police recruits because those training officers really set the informal standard of what's acceptable and unacceptable on the street. Look at use-of-force training. Look at de-escalation training. We have to do that. Also, I would like to see us reinstitute an office of police standards, or law enforcement standards, and training through the Department of Justice and also reinstitute the Office of Civil Rights in a new and powerful way. We can do this, Steve, but it's gonna take the federal, local and state governments working together to fix the problems that we're seeing in law enforcement, but also that we're seeing in other areas as well throughout our nation.

 

Clemons: Why is training so out of whack? Is there something we have to dial back in terms of the military tactics, the militarization of our domestic police forces, which has really taken hold in the last decade or so?

Demings: The training has been designed to really deal with something that I would say was changed during 9/11. As you know, local police officers, police departments they’re the first line of defense, and so the training, the what we would call military equipment and all was really designed to deal with terrorist attacks as we saw officers on 9/11, [on the] front line, all the New York police officers, fire department and others. And so in that equipment, when we have the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, for example, where 49 people were killed, it was the military-type equipment that allowed us to be able to breach the building and rescue those and have more survivors than those who are dead. So but see, training is critical. You know, a well-trained police department is a department that wins time and time again. And the problem is not so much equipment that we see. That equipment was never purchased to be used against citizens, the community, the equipment was designed to be used against worse than that — terrorists and terrorist responses. … But we have to invest to make sure that training, it doesn't just involve police, you know, tactics and use of force. But it also involves community-oriented police training that helps to further build the relationship and the trust between the police department and the community. Police officers have to be counselors; they have to be salesmen and women; they have to be ministers on many occasions; they have to be social workers; they have to be comforters. And then at the same time, they have to deal with violent crime and hold those accountable who are responsible. … I think at the federal level we can develop some standards as it pertains to training and is particularly use of force and de-escalation training, human diversity training that I think further helps the police department do their job more effectively every day.

 

Clemons: What do you think Congress still needs to do to stand by people who have been displaced in this time?

Demings: We passed a couple of months ago, now, I believe the largest relief package in the history of this nation a $2.2 trillion and quickly realized that wasn't enough, had to pass an additional interim package of $484 billion then the Heroes Act, which was $3 trillion. As I said earlier, we’re dealing with some things we've never seen before, which requires us to do some things we have never done before, and bring in relief as quickly as possible to America's families who are suffering, who were employed working, going to work every day and through no fault of their own to lose their jobs. And the federal government continues to try to work very closely with our governors throughout the states, certainly with the state officials here to make sure that we are properly processing those unemployment applications. … People who are trying to make ends meet, keep a roof over their head and food on the table and help them have enough resources to just bridge the gap until we can come out of this situation that we're in.

 

Clemons: How worried do you think the American public should be about the health of democracy right now?

Demings: Whether it’s COVID-19 or its civil unrest or it's hurricane season or it's the presidential election, all of these things have consequences. And, you know, I've told my story before that I am the daughter of a maid and a janitor. I remember my dad used to go to work seven days a week. He did a lot of odd jobs to provide for his family. I'm the youngest of seven children, but the first of my family to go to college. I made it Steve. I was able to become a social worker, a police officer, police chief, first woman chief, and now a member of Congress. I made it. And now I feel a direct personal obligation to make sure that every other boy and girl, man and woman in this country have an opportunity, have a fighting chance in this nation. I would not have been able to make it, were it not for the precious democracy on which our country stands on. My job is to also help every voter understand that without our democracy, America would not be the greatest nation in the world full of opportunity. And, you know, I served on Judiciary and the Intelligence committees, served as an impeachment manager, the rule of law, our Constitution and upholding the democracy. Primary responsibilities of the impeachment trial, still very critical today. If we want people living in this country regardless of the color of their skin, how much money they have in the bank, their family’s last name, we've got to protect our democracy. Which means we have to vote for the person who has the agenda that puts people first and is fighting to give every citizen a fighting chance.