Two months into her first term as a member of Congress, Florida Democrat and former police chief Rep. Val Demings was asked on national television whether “all lives matter.”
“When we hire law enforcement to do the job, we need to let them do their job, sit back, and not let, when a group of society feels like they’re being mistreated, let them go in there and tear up a city or town,” declared Randy, a Virginia Democrat who called in to Demings’ inaugural appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal with more of a comment than a question. “Because once you do that, you’ll have no control. So what I’m saying is, all lives matter, not just certain lives—everybody matters.”
Demings, who served as chief of the Orlando Police Department between 2007 and 2011 before entering politics, kept a calm expression before responding that in her decades on the force, she’d learned that mutual accountability was the best path for cops to take.
“You’re absolutely right, we need to support our men and women in blue, because they are the first line of defense when things go wrong,” Demings said. “It’s about accountability—we need to hold law enforcement accountable, but we also need to hold the community accountable. If you break the law, you don’t get a pass on that; if you don’t follow the rules as a law enforcement officer, you should not get a pass about that. So it’s really about accountability.”
Until the past few weeks, Demings’ remarks were consistent with the approach she has taken towards the Black Lives Matter movement: admitting to faults in law enforcement, but emphasizing that both civilians and cops require trust in order to address them.
“Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church. It won’t take long to find one,” Demings wrote in a 2008 op-ed defending the Orlando Police Department against accusations of a reliance on use of force. “Despite attempts to focus on our imperfections, we are more committed than ever to reducing crime and keeping our city safe… I do believe the vast majority of citizens, business owners and visitors are right there with us.”
But as the largest protest movement in half a century has spread across the country in response to police brutality against black civilians—and as Demings has come under consideration to join former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket—the Florida congresswoman’s tone on police violence has grown sharper.
“As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?” Demings asked rhetorically in an op-ed published in the Washington Post last week, in which she urged fellow cops to “think before you act!” when serving the public.
“Bad decisions can bring irrevocable harm to the profession and tear down the relationships and trust between the police and the communities they serve,” Demings wrote. “Remember, your most powerful weapon is the brain the good Lord gave you. Use it!”
As Demings has risen from being one of the first black, female police chiefs in a large American city to a place on the shortlist for Biden’s running mate, her background in law enforcement is seen within the campaign as a potential shield against broadsides by President Donald Trump that the former veep wants to “defund the police”—and her support for meeting the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement from within law enforcement could make her a bridge between law enforcement and those who support criminal justice reform.
But activists and opponents in Orlando told The Daily Beast that Demings’ more aggressive public stand on policing is too little, too late.
“The cover is nice—you’re a God-fearing woman, congratulations—but when you turn the pages, you might not like what you see, and I know I don’t,” said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network’s Central Florida chapter and longtime critic of the Orlando Police Department. Gelzer told The Daily Beast that the change in tone reeks of opportunism from a potential vice president—and doesn’t speak to the longstanding issues in Orlando.
“Why now?” Gelzer said, responding to the opening lines of Demings’ Washington Post interview. “Why now, when you’ve know what’s been going on for years? You know what has happened in Central Florida.”
Willie Montague, one of two Republicans vying to face off against Demings for her congressional seat in November, told The Daily Beast that either her past support for harsh police tactics by the Orlando Police Department was a facade, or her current calls for reform are.
“Demings once defended the body-slamming of an 84-year-old man during her tenure as Orlando police chief,” Montague said. “She is clearly a political opportunist that will say whatever she feels her audience wants her to say, whilst doing something very different.”
Montague was referring to the case of Daniel Daley, a veteran of World War II who had his neck broken by an Orlando police officer in September 2010 following a dispute over his car getting towed. Daley’s subsequent lawsuit cost the city $880,000, and although Demings was not named in the suit, she publicly defended the officer’s takedown technique. (Daley’s attorney has since defended Demings’ actions as chief, telling The Daily Beast last month that he thought she would make a good vice president, if selected.)
Demings’ detractors say that case, and others like it, are part of a broader culture of force in Orlando that she failed to change as chief, and typify the sorts of abuses that many criminal justice advocates see as the reason for reform. The city has one of the highest per capita rates of police killings in the nation, and black residents are 4.6 times more likely to be killed by police than whites.
Longtime Democratic fundraiser Bob Poe, who squared off against Demings in the party’s congressional 2016 primary, cited an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel that found the Orlando Police Department used force against suspects 574 times in the final year of her tenure as chief—roughly 20 percent more frequently than officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a similarly sized city with a similar demographic profile.
“That's the systemic racism we’re dealing with here in Orlando,” Gelzer said. “Don’t get it twisted because Mickey Mouse is here—Orlando is still a very racist, good ol’ boy town.”
Demings is not the only potential running mate whose background in law enforcement has presented a potential quandary for the Biden campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris of California was trolled as a “cop” when she sought the Democratic nomination due to her background as a former prosecutor, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s role as the top prosecutor in Minnesota’s largest county has been seen as a major potential liability after it came to light that the officer who killed George Floyd shot a man weeks before she was elected to the Senate (although Klobuchar herself did not make the decision not to prosecute the officer).
Demings’ own public evolution on police reform tracks closely with Biden’s own, from urging communities and law enforcement to meet in the middle to, as the congresswoman wrote in the Post op-ed, conducting “a serious review” of police training, hiring standard, use-of-force policies, and recruitment.
“As law enforcement officers, we took an oath to protect and serve,” Demings wrote. “And those who forgot—or who never understood that oath in the first place—must go.”
But Demings’ longtime calls for cops to be a part of the solution in addressing police violence, law enforcement advocates told The Daily Beast, may help make the difficult pill of criminal justice reform a little easier to swallow.
“I have to look more into the record—policing in New York City is much different than policing in Florida,” said Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the second-largest labor union representing New York City Police Department officers. DiGiacomo, who last week called Biden’s calls for reform the sign of a “typical politician,” said that including Demings might help win back the support of law enforcement unions ahead of the general election.
“Policing is very difficult throughout the whole country now,” DiGiacomo said. “That would be a check on the plus side.”
Both DiGiacomo and Montague pointed out that defunding police departments, which has become a rallying cry at protests against violence against black people by law enforcement, is not popular among likely voters—but, countered Gelzer, support for the Black Lives Matter movement is.
“That’s what the community is saying,” Gelzer said. “It’s not stripping you of all your money, it’s reallocating and putting money into services and needs that we need. They’re like the fire department—the fire department does not patrol my neighborhood. They come when I need them.”
Demings’ congressional office responded to questions about her record as chief of police by pointing to her op-ed, in which Demings wrote that “we must be proactive. We must work with law enforcement agencies to identify problems before they happen.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, has made it clear in recent days that criminal justice reform will be one of his top priorities if elected—and that the help of every member of a Biden administration will be required to make it happen.
“The stains of America's original sin are very much with us to this day, and there is an emergency our country must meet and overcome now: people of color are unjustifiably losing their lives at the hands of police,” a Biden adviser told The Daily Beast. “It’s a long-running epidemic that we must put to a decisive stop.”