Who is Val Demings? Valdez Venita Demings (born March 12, 1957) is an American politician and former police officer who has served as U.S. Representative for the tenth district of Florida Congress since 2017. From 2007 to 2011, she was Head of the Orlando Police Department, the first woman to run the department, culminating in a 27-year career in the department. Demings was the Democratic candidate to represent the tenth district of the Florida Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives in both 2012 and 2016. He lost the general election in 2012 to current Republican Daniel Webster, but won in 2016 after the State Supreme Court ordered the creation of a new, minority-majority Democratic district in Orlando. On January 15, 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected Demings to serve as a trial manager at President Donald Trump’s Senate trial.
Representative Val Demings, Democrat of Florida, has a rising national profile.
He played a prominent role in President Trump’s political trial in the Senate. Before arriving at Congress in 2017, she was the first woman to lead the Orlando police force. And now, with widespread demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd and other African-Americans at the hands of officers, Demings, a black woman, has been opened about the need for police reform and his support for protesters.
“I’m very proud of the people who are demonstrating on the street,” she says. “They should be demonstrating the misconduct of the police.”
Demings’ credentials have placed her on the list of possible vice presidential elections for alleged Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. But right now, his experience in law enforcement also questions his place on the short list.
Demings grew up in Jacksonville, one of seven children. His mother was a maid and his father worked as a janitor.
He grew up in a city where schools and lunch counters were segregated. Demings says he learned early about racism.
“They called me the N-word when I was 4. And I can remember that I didn’t even really understand what it meant,” he says. “When everyone started laughing and pointing at me, I knew it was whatever it was, it wasn’t good.”
Demings was the first person in his family to graduate from college. She began her career as a social worker, but soon moved to the police. She was hired by the Orlando Police Department and was there for 27 years, becoming head in 2007.
Now, as a congressman, Demings is one of dozens of co-sponsors of a police reform bill proposed by House Democrats that would ban the use of stranglers and many arrest warrants. It would also limit police immunity from prosecution and create a national database on police misconduct.
Demings says her career has prepared her for this moment.
“I have been on both sides of this issue, as a social worker and as a law enforcement officer. I’ve enforced the laws and now I’m writing them,” he says. “I think it’s a pretty good experience to take to Congress.”
As for her possible selection as Biden’s formula companion, Demings says, “I’m willing to serve in any way I need.”
But amid national protests over police violence, some activists say a former police chief sends the wrong message. Jonathan Alingu, co-director of Jobs with Justice at Central Florida, says, “I don’t think it’s the right time for Congresswoman Demings.”
While he has nothing personal against Demings as a possible vice president, Alingu says his connection to the police department is a problem.
“There are a lot of people you can talk to inside the city who have their qualms about the police department that have never been resolved,” he says. “She’s part of that legacy. That’s something you have to answer for.”
Demings served as Orlando’s police chief for about three and a half years. An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that over a four-year period that included part of Demings’ tenure, city police officers used force in arrests at twice the rate of some other agencies, including Tampa’s. The investigation found that more than half of the suspects who were fore subjected to force were black.
“The police department has been like any other police department we’re talking about in the United States of America: over-monitoring the African-American community,” says Jerry Girley, a civil rights lawyer in Orlando.
One of Demings’ greatest embarrassments as chief of police came when someone stole his 9mm gun from his keyless car. He never recovered.
Also during his tenure, the department was sued in 2011 after an officer broke the neck of an 84-year-old man who was thrown to the ground. Demings determined that the takedown was within department guidelines, but a jury awarded him $880,000 in damages. Demings later ordered a review of the force use policy, and the lawyer who represented the 84-year-old victim praised Demings.
Demings also worked as chief to improve the department’s process for hiring, training and monitoring officers in the field.
“I instituted what we called an early warning system,” she says, “which gave us a better way of tracking officers who were possibly exhibiting behavior that caused us concern. We would pull them out of assignments, send them to counseling if they needed it, reassign them, give them additional training.”
Girley says that although he’s been critical of the Orlando Police Department, one thing he and others in the black community appreciated about Demings is that she was always open and willing to listen. “You’re never going to get everything you want, everything you would like,” he says. “But they did have the sense that she was trying to be fair.”
Demings believes the activists and demonstrators taking to the streets now will play a key role in the fall election. “If there’s any chance to really have meaningful police reform,” she says, “it all culminates at the ballot box.”
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