Val Demings’ rise from Orlando’s first black woman police chief to a congresswoman with a central role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial landed her on Joe Biden’s vice presidential shortlist.
And now, as protests over the death of George Floyd grip the country, those same credentials are propelling Demings further into the national spotlight, with interviews last weekend on “Meet the Press,” frequent cable news hits and a Washington Post op-ed titled “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”
But for Demings, a Democrat who served as police chief from 2007 to 2011 after joining the Orlando Police Department in 1983, the resume that served her so well in the last four years may turn out to be a mixed bag amid the national outcry against police brutality and a flawed criminal justice system.
“Why do bad things happen? Bad mind, bad heart or bad policy?” Demings wrote. “The painful cries of Eric Garner will be with us forever. Now, George Floyd’s pleas for help will, too. I cannot begin to understand how any officer could ignore the painful pleas we heard from Floyd — or from anyone suffering.”
Demings wouldn’t comment on her law enforcement record, and the Biden campaign wouldn’t discuss the vice presidential selection process. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in an interview last month that Demings “is one of a group of close to a dozen really qualified and talented women who are on the list.”
Demings’ tenure as Orlando police chief was not without controversy. She was once censured by the police department’s internal affairs department for having her service weapon and ammunition stolen from her unlocked car and a 2015 Orlando Sentinel investigation showed that the Orlando Police Department’s use of force during arrests was more than double the rate of similarly-sized police departments during her time as chief.
But two civil rights attorneys who were involved in high-profile police brutality cases that occurred on Demings’ watch said she’s well-suited to be vice president.
“If she’s being looked at in terms of ‘Does she have the disposition to serve in high office?’ I have no question in my mind that she does,” said Jerry Girley, an Orlando attorney who sued the police department on multiple occasions, including on behalf of an Orlando man who was shot in the back in 2011 after police mistook him for a robbery suspect. “Is she perfect? No. Capable? Yes. She’s always been a very deep thinker. I think that she genuinely feels a desire to get justice done.”
Orlando attorney Mark NeJame once won a $850,000 settlement from the Orlando Police Department after an officer broke the neck of 84-year-old World War II veteran Daniel Daley in 2010 while responding to a parking dispute between Daley and a tow truck driver.
Demings’ department initially tried to settle with Daley and defended the officer’s actions, but NeJame went to trial and won. Despite their differences, NeJame said Demings is a “strong advocate for good law enforcement.”
“With [the case] I disagreed with her, but if you’re going to have an adversary you’re going to want somebody that listens to you,” said NeJame, who has hosted a fundraisers for Biden, Demings and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I think there’s probably few people in the country better suited or situated for the job.”
Demings also had a key role in Trump’s impeachment proceedings in 2019 and 2020, when she served on the two congressional committees responsible for investigating the president’s conduct and argued for Trump’s removal from office in the Senate trial as an impeachment manager.
Not everyone sees her criminal justice background as a plus for higher office. Though Demings seemed slated for bigger things almost from the start — the Democratic Party gave her a speaking slot at the 2016 convention while she was still running in a contested congressional primary — another vice presidential hopeful, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has seen her prospects diminish because of her previous role overseeing the Minneapolis Police Department as a prosecutor.
Jonathan Alingu, a co-director for the community organizing group Central Florida Jobs with Justice, said Demings’ choice to pursue a career in law enforcement makes her ill-suited for the vice presidency.
“She chose to be a police chief. She chose to engage in the traditional legacy of policing that is harmful to black people specifically, poor people specifically, in Orlando,” Alingu said. “She’s not the whole cause of it. It’s bigger than her, but at the same time, you have the power of choice to be in that position and that position got you here, and the moment has shifted and you have to answer for that.”
Alingu said Demings’ status as a black woman with law enforcement experience should matter less than her history of defending officers who are accused of brutality.
“There’s a lot of attention around bringing in a person of color. However, it’s time to move past the politics of representation,” Alingu said. “It’s just for show.”
Lawana Gelzer, a community activist and frequent candidate in local Orlando elections, said Demings’ work as police chief will hurt Biden’s candidacy if she becomes the VP nominee.
“If he nominates her, he’s going to lose to Trump,” said Gelzer, who would prefer Biden to nominate former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as his running mate. “When it comes to this role, this time in America with people hurting, it’s not about what you write. It’s what you’ve done. What changes have you made? How have you reached into the community and say ‘I feel your pain, I see you?’ That’s what I’m looking for in a VP.”
But Girley, who once worked as a civilian technician with the Orlando Police Department before becoming a lawyer, said Demings tried to make changes when she became police chief.
Girley quit his police job, which involved producing videos and promotional materials for the department, in 1989 when he observed the city’s drug enforcement unit targeting black neighborhoods. When Demings became chief in 2007, Girley said she disbanded the unit.
“As a man of color, I woke up and said, I can’t do that,” Girley said “The drug squad had people there for the wrong reasons. She disbanded...that rogue drug squad. That unit was disbanded. It did not earn her any support or points on the part of the rank-and-file. When she made that decision, she earned my respect.”
Democratic Rep. Darren Soto said a Biden-Demings ticket would have an additional benefit beyond fulfilling Biden’s promise to nominate a woman: It would make Trump’s path to victory in Florida — a large swing state and the president’s home —harder.
“She would help put Biden over the top here in Florida,” Soto said. “He’s already got the credibility and broad bipartisan appeal. She would add even more energy to the ticket.”