Val Demings’s tenure as police chief complicates choice of Biden’s VP

Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), one of several lawmakers being considered as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice president, is facing increasing scrutiny of a specific part of her record: Prior to joining Congress, Demings served as Orlando’s chief of police — heading up a department that’s been called out for its excessive use of force.

Demings’s background in law enforcement, which includes more than three years as chief and 27 on the force in total, has received new attention as protests against police violence and systemic racism continue across the country. While some see Demings’s experience as an asset that enables her to connect with more moderate voters, activists argue that her presence on the ticket would send a concerning message about Democrats’ position on policing — particularly as the party grapples with defining its own approach to reforms.

“We really need to read the room on this one,” says Vanessa Keverenge, an organizer in Orange County, Florida. “Symbolically, it’s a slap in the face to the thousands of protesters who are protesting in the state.”

Critics say Demings was part of a broader culture of violence in policing that’s present in Orlando and beyond. According to an investigation of use of force incidents by the Orlando Sentinel that was published in 2015, the Orlando Police Department in 2010 engaged in 20 percent more use of force incidents than Baton Rouge, a city of comparable size and population. Demings was the city’s police chief from 2007 to 2011.

“At the times that Val has had power to do things and transform the system, she’s failed to,” says Stephanie Porta, an executive director of Organize Florida who had previously backed Demings during a run she made for Orange County Mayor in 2014.

Demings, meanwhile, has said that she focused on reforming policing from within and can now use her experience to legislate authoritatively on policy changes. “I served as a social worker, I served as a career law-enforcement officer, and I serve now as a member of Congress,” Demings told the Wall Street Journal. “I would not change any of those positions or desires, because in each one I had an opportunity to improve the quality of life for persons who were forgotten and left behind, and I would do it all over again.”

This past May, Demings also published an op-ed in the Washington Post in the wake of protests of George Floyd’s death, which many cities’ law enforcement officers have responded to with violence. “As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?” she wrote. Demings’s spokesperson declined to provide additional comment regarding her record.

For some Democrats, it’s this record that complicates her possible nomination for the party’s vice presidential ticket.

Demings’s background and policing experience, briefly explained

Demings, 63, currently represents Florida’s 10th, a Central Florida district that includes Orlando. She was first elected to Congress in 2016 when she defeated Republican entrepreneur Thuy Lowe.

Earlier this year, Demings was one of seven impeachment managers who represented House Democrats’ case against President Donald Trump at the Senate impeachment trial, a role that helped raise her national profile. She currently sits on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees and has been a strong supporter of gun control laws, including a ban on assault weapons, during her time in Congress.

Prior to her congressional run, Demings served in the Orlando police force for nearly three decades and was the first Black woman to become its chief. She is originally from Jacksonville, Florida, and was the first person in her family to graduate from college. After graduating from Florida State University in 1979, she worked as a social worker for two years before joining the police force. Her husband, Jerry Demings, has also previously served as Orlando police chief and is now the Mayor of Orange County, Florida.

“I quickly realized that we cannot arrest our way out of some of the challenges in our communities, that we had a direct obligation as law enforcement to address some of the social ills that cause decay in communities in the first place,” Demings has said while describing her approach to policing, in a June interview with ABC’s This Week.

During her time as chief, Demings oversaw a marked decrease in violent crime in Orlando: According to a 2015 National Journal article by Jack Fitzpatrick, violent crime in the city dipped 43.6 percent between 2007 to 2011.

Porta credits her with a project that notably reduced violent crime at the Palms Apartments housing complex in Orlando. The program included establishing a community park, setting up after-school programs for children in the complex, and helping adult residents enroll in GED and job training programs.

Throughout Demings’s tenure, however, Orlando police also dealt with multiple use of force incidents and settlements, including one in September 2010 involving an 84-year-old man whose neck was broken by a police officer during a confrontation. In another incident, this one in February 2011, a police officer shoved a woman into the sidewalk and broke her teeth while he was responding to an alleged disturbance. And in another, a man sued police officers after allegedly being attacked by a police dog when he ran from police following a traffic stop in December 2008.

Use of force by the OPD has also been skewed by race, according to data that covers part of Demings’s tenure. The 2015 Sentinel report determined that, between 2010 to 2014, force was more likely to be used by police on Black individuals: “OPD officers used force more frequently on black suspects: 55 percent in a city where 28 percent of the population is black.” And a 2008 investigation by Jeffrey Billman at the Orlando Weekly, which examined the systems that hold police accountable, concluded that OPD “is a place where rogue cops operate with impunity, and there’s nothing anybody who finds himself at the wrong end of their short fuse can do about it.”

Following the publication of the Orlando Weekly article, Demings noted that “looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church,” a response that critics see as dismissively underscoring how pervasive problems in policing are.

A report from the Atlantic has highlighted the unique challenges that Black police leaders have faced while grappling with police brutality and racism on their own forces — and the limitations they’ve run up against while trying to implement reforms. The entrenched protections offered by police unions can make it tough to address police misconduct, for example, and Black leaders face different scrutiny, expectations, and racism compared to their white counterparts.

Demings emphasizes that she engaged in reforms while she was chief, including improvements to the officer training program. “I instituted what we called an early warning system, which gave us a better way of tracking officers who were possibly exhibiting behavior that caused us concern,” she told NPR. “We would pull them out of assignments, send them to counseling if they needed it, reassign them, give them additional training.” Demings has also backed House Democrats’ police reform bill, which would establish a national registry for police misconduct and impose a federal ban on chokeholds.

Broadly, though, activists say Demings didn’t do enough to alter the culture of Orlando policing while she was in charge. “She exists as part of this tradition of policing in Orlando that has been harmful to Black people and poor people,” Jonathan Alingu, a co-director of Central Florida Jobs With Justice, told Vox.

After leaving her position as OPD chief in 2011, Demings pursued a House run in the 10th District in 2012 and an Orange County mayoral run in 2014. She ultimately lost the first House race to Republican Daniel Webster and withdrew from the mayoral run. After getting elected to the House in 2016 following a redistricting change that made the 10th more Democratic, she’s continued to have strong support in her district, running unopposed in 2018.

As a lawmaker, her legislative agenda has been influenced by her professional history, sometimes in a manner that’s caused activists to raise concerns mirroring those they have about her police record. One example is activists questioning her decision to back what they’ve called a “Blue Lives Matter” bill, 2018 legislation on which she was the sole Democratic sponsor. That bill, called The Protect and Serve Act, would charge individuals that have knowingly inflicted bodily harm on a police officer with a federal crime, punishable by a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

The legislation ultimately proved to be a way for many Democrats to demonstrate their support for police. In the end, as the American Prospect points out, more than 160 Democrats voted in favor of it once it was on the floor — a move that demonstrates how the party has only more recently advanced in favor of sweeping reform.

The presidential election is taking place as Democrats face pressure on policing

Systemic racism and police bias are poised to be major issues in the presidential election — and against this backdrop, Demings’s experience could pose a notable challenge during the general election, particularly as the Democratic party looks to unite its more progressive and establishment wings.

Activists emphasize that her nomination would suggest that the party isn’t taking the energy in these protests seriously. “[Protesters are] marching against cops — why would you put a cop on the ticket?” asked Porta. There are questions, too, about whether Demings’s nomination would further compound critiques that Biden himself has faced on his own criminal justice record.

As part of his presidential platform, Biden has backed reforms including establishing a national use of force standard and expanding the presence of body cameras, though he’s shied away from calls to defund the police and shift more money toward other social service programs. He’s received extensive pushback as well for his role in writing the 1994 crime bill, which included provisions that gave states funding to build more prisons.

There are political experts, however, who believe that Demings’s experience could be appealing to some voters who value her expertise in policing. “I see her background and record in law enforcement as both an advantage and a disadvantage,” says University of Florida political science professor Sharon Austin. “Her law enforcement background can benefit the Biden campaign if she’s chosen because of her knowledge of policing practices and the types of reforms that are needed.”

And Rep. Lois Frankel, another member of Florida’s congressional delegation, has argued that Demings’ combination of experience in Congress and the police force make her an ideal choice for the vice presidency. “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,” Frankel told The Hill.

Demings also hails from Florida, a swing state that will be important again this cycle: In 2016, former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by just over 1 percentage point there. Some, including Florida attorney and Biden fundraiser John Morgan, have suggested that having the lawmaker as a running mate could help Biden’s chances in the state.

“Val gets the vice president 1 to 2 extra points in Florida. That will be the difference,” Morgan told Vox. According to Florida State University political science professor Brad Gomez, however, she’s not well-known statewide, so it’s unclear just how much of a boost her presence on the ticket would provide.

The vice presidential pick will send a message

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has written, presidential nominees rely on vice presidential picks less to deliver their home states or be surrogates than to make a statement about their priorities and judgment, and to send “an early signal about what a future administration might look like.” And this is why many activists worry about Demings being chosen.

Throughout the presidential nomination process — and increasingly amid the protests of police brutality and systemic racism — there’s been a push for Biden to select a Black woman as his running mate, a decision that could increase the diversity in perspectives that’s on the ticket. Some lawmakers who have been floated for the role, including Demings and Sen. Kamala Harris, however, have garnered progressive pushback for their work in law enforcement and prosecution.

And this pressure has some activists worried. They fear the selection of someone like Demings or Harris would signal Biden is not overly interested in pursuing progressive reforms. Were Demings chosen without a more concerted effort to engage with the Orlando community about the detrimental effects of policing, Alingu says he’d be disappointed. “I see it as a message that it’s about representation at the end of the day and not really about policy change,” he noted. “If that happens and there’s no level of outreach, true reconciliation, I see it as about representation.”

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