Val Demings Is on Biden’s List. Will Her Police Career Hurt or Help?

Val Demings Is on Biden’s List. Will Her Police Career Hurt or Help?

An Orlando police officer shoved a 27-year-old Hispanic woman down a flight of stairs, breaking her ankle. A jury ordered him to pay her medical bills.

Another officer slammed an 84-year-old World War II veteran to the ground during a car-towing dispute, resulting in doctors’ putting him into a medically induced coma. The city had to pay him $880,000.

Outside a Target store, officers investigating a robbery surrounded a minivan and fired into it nearly a dozen times, critically injuring an unarmed man. He won a $750,000 settlement.

The episodes all occurred between 2007 and 2010, long before the ongoing protests currently sweeping the country, denouncing the disproportionate use of police force against people of color. If the Orlando police felt even a fraction of the pressure that departments face today, the leadership did not bend to it: The chief, Val B. Demings, defended the officers in each case.

A decade later, Ms. Demings, now a second-term Democratic congresswoman, has emerged as a finalist to be Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate. She rose in politics as a Black woman with law enforcement credentials, but her moment in the spotlight comes as the nation reckons with the difficult legacy of police brutality and racial discrimination.

If she is chosen as the vice-presidential nominee, her career could prove to be a political asset against an incumbent president who is building his re-election campaign around his call for law and order, while attacking Mr. Biden as weak on crime. But in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with protests continuing to rock the country, it could also be a political liability.

“This is an opportunity to change the way things are,” said David Porter, a former newspaper columnist active in progressive causes, who worked for Ms. Demings early in her political career. “I just don’t know that picking a cop would send the right message right now.”

Police misconduct cases are also the focus of renewed scrutiny for another top contender for the vice presidency, Senator Kamala Harris, who has been criticized for not aggressively prosecuting officers accused of wrongdoing as California’s attorney general. And they derailed the hopes of another candidate, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who withdrew last month amid criticism that as a prosecutor she had failed to charge officers accused of misconduct.

In recent weeks, Ms. Demings has become a leading voice calling for changes in policing, and she has cast herself as an experienced reformer, repeating that she started out as a social worker and brought a “social worker’s heart” to police work. But a review by The New York Times shows a more complicated record: that of a police leader with a long history of defending the status quo.

Ms. Demings, 63, spent 27 years in one of the most violent police departments of its size in the United States. She repeatedly defended fellow officers, dating at least to 1999, when she helped vindicate a white chief in a neighboring city of allegations of racial discrimination. During her time as chief, crime sharply declined, but police use of force remained high; a 2015 study by The Orlando Sentinel showed that in the second half of Ms. Demings’s tenure and during the tenure of her successor, officers used force at a rate that was twice as high as those of officers at other departments of similar size.

While she was chief, her department also began arresting people for violating a years-old ban on distributing food to homeless residents in city parks.

Credit…Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

And in Congress, Ms. Demings is one of the only Democrats to co-sponsor the Protect and Serve Act, which would make it a hate crime to attack a law enforcement officer.

In an interview this week, Ms. Demings stood by her record on police accountability, saying she improved hiring practices and increased officer training. But she said her top priority as chief was addressing a spike in crime.

“Police work is not a perfect science,” she said. “We’re there to clean up messes. And sometimes when you clean up messes, it’s not pretty.”

Supporters said Ms. Demings should not be judged for all the flaws of policing in America.

“You can’t blame Val for institutional racism,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.

Mr. Clyburn, who has not endorsed anyone to be Mr. Biden’s running mate, is one of many Democrats who believe Ms. Demings could bring a lot to the ticket.

She rose from humble roots to become Orlando’s first female chief and a House manager in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial this year. Her supporters believe she could appeal to enough independents, and perhaps even Republicans, to improve Mr. Biden’s prospects in Florida, a battleground state where major elections are routinely decided by razor-thin margins.

Mr. Biden is expected to announce his decision next week.

Ms. Demings is well liked by colleagues, though for a time she was confusingly a member of both the centrist and progressive caucuses.

On Tuesday, during a nationally televised hearing, she leveraged her experience in law enforcement while questioning the attorney general, William P. Barr, about the removal of U.S. attorneys under President Trump. “As a former police detective, I have solved many cases based on patterns of behavior, and there is an alarming pattern I believe that is developing,” she said. “It appears that any time a U.S. attorney investigates the president or those close to them, he or she is removed and replaced by one of your friends.”

Ms. Demings was born Valdez Butler, the youngest of seven children of a maid and a janitor. She grew up in a two-room house outside Jacksonville, and said growing up she experienced racism and the vestiges of segregation. She has said that her law enforcement career began in sixth grade, when she served on the school patrol and intervened in altercations on the bus.

After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in criminology, she worked for a year at a security company and then for two years as a counselor to children in foster homes.

In 1983, she heard a radio ad recruiting officers for the Orlando Police Department and decided to apply.

Ms. Demings rose through the ranks, serving in nearly every part of the department, including the patrol division, the hostage negotiation team and the public information office, and earning stellar reviews.

Credit…Frank Torres/Alamy

She also met a fellow officer whom she later married — Jerry L. Demings. He became Orlando’s first Black police chief in 1998; when she served as chief, he was the sheriff of Orange County, which encompasses Orlando. He is now Orange County’s mayor.

In 1999, the Gainesville Police Department asked Ms. Demings to help review its chief, who had resigned after 28 complaints from his 30 Black officers. Her review cleared the chief, saying they found no evidence of racial discrimination. The local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. derided the inquiry as a public relations stunt.

When similar issues arose in Orlando, Ms. Demings often supported police leadership, including in multiple op-eds in The Sentinel.

“As the highest-ranking African-American member of the Orlando Police Department, I have read and heard quite enough about the suggestions of racism, racial profiling and the like,” she wrote in 2006, seeming to try to shut down a conversation that is still burning years later.

Violent crime in Orlando was at a high when Ms. Demings became chief the next year. She responded by focusing on specific neighborhoods and housing complexes, and during her tenure, violent crime fell by 40 percent.

“If I had not been successful in reducing the crime rate, we know what people would’ve said,” Ms. Demings said recently during a television appearance. “‘First woman chief, oh my God, she can’t handle that job.’”

But her tenure also was marked by repeated allegations of police brutality.

The first major case to come across her desk in 2007 involved an officer who pushed a woman down the stairs at a club where he worked as a security guard. The officer claimed the woman spit on him and drunkenly fell. Prosecutors charged her with felony battery on a police officer, and she lost her job. (They later dropped the charges, but she did not get her job back, her lawyer said.)

In a rare instance of imposing discipline on an officer, investigators concluded his version was not accurate and removed two of his vacation days. But Ms. Demings returned one of the vacation days, citing a technical mistake in the process.

Perhaps the most scrutinized case she faced occurred in 2010, when Officer Travis LaMont, then 26, encountered 84-year-old Daniel Daley arguing with a tow-truck driver outside of a bar.

Mr. Daley urged Mr. LaMont to help, and he later acknowledged tapping the officer’s arm several times. The officer told him to stop, and when he did not, he performed what is known as a “dynamic takedown,” leaning into Mr. Daley with his hip and throwing him to the ground.

Mr. Daley landed on his head and broke his neck.

Ms. Demings defended Mr. LaMont, saying, “The officer performed the technique within department guidelines,” although she said she would review the guidelines.

That decision set off a protest outside Police Headquarters; one demonstrator held a sign with a photo of the veteran wearing a neck brace. “Threat neutralized,” it said, according to The Sentinel.

A jury ordered the city to pay Mr. Daley $880,000.

That same year, a group of officers pursuing an alleged credit card thief fired a flurry of shots into a minivan they claimed had rammed their vehicles, hitting one man at least five times. Video later showed that a police car pushed the minivan into the vehicles.

Again, outrage against the police erupted, and the city paid the man $750,000. But the department cleared the officers.

Ms. Demings declined to answer written questions about specific cases but said she did her best to hold officers accountable.

“I did what I could, when I could and where I could,” she said in an email.

Asked in the interview her biggest mistake as chief, she cited the time her service weapon was stolen from her vehicle.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Dwain Rivers, the longtime head of internal affairs at the Orlando Police Department, disputed the notion that Ms. Demings was overly protective of officers accused of misconduct. He said she was limited by union contracts, but she was as tough as any of the other chiefs for whom he has worked.

Mr. Rivers said that Ms. Demings had engaged the community and helped create a professional organization to support Black officers.

Under Ms. Demings, officers used force about 600 times a year, according to a New York Times analysis of city data. That did not significantly change during her tenure, although shootings involving police officers slightly increased. Today, the website lists Orlando as the fourth-worst major city for police killings per capita, a culture that activists say stems in part from Ms. Demings’s tenure as chief..

“It wouldn’t be that high if she had gotten with the community. She ignored us,” said Lawanna Gelzer, the president of the Central Florida chapter of the National Action Network. “And she gets up and criticizes other law enforcement agencies. It’s hypocritical.”

Ms. Demings has said comparisons are unfair, in part because Orlando has many bars that attract rowdy crowds.

After Ms. Demings retired in 2011, she ran unsuccessfully for Congress and for mayor of Orange County. When she ran for Congress a second time in 2016, police brutality became a major campaign issue in the primary.

Still, with support from the national party, Ms. Demings prevailed, impressing Democratic officials with her lively speaking style and the ease of her victory.

“If she had done a bad job as police chief, she wouldn’t have been elected to Congress,” said John Morgan, a major Democratic donor from Orlando. Mr. Morgan added, “If being a police officer and a police chief is now a liability, then God help the country.”

As protests have swept the nation, Ms. Demings has responded carefully. She published an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled, “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?” But she has declined to say whether the officers who killed Breonna Taylor should be arrested, as protesters have demanded.

This spring, before the protests began but after impeachment hearings increased her profile, Ms. Demings updated her campaign website. Her logo previously read “Chief Val Demings for Congress.” Now it says “Val Demings for Congress.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Published at Wed, 29 Jul 2020 11:50:00 +0000

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