Demings defended her officers. “Yes, we are only human, trying to do a job in challenging times that sometimes appears to require superhuman strength,” she wrote in an opinion piece. “However, 98 claims of excessive force out of more than 2,000,000 encounters with the public would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Orlando police officers are doing okay, for the most part, in the performance of their duties.”
It was a familiar posture for Demings, whose leadership of the department from 2007 to 2011 capped a 27-year policing career.
Later, when one of her officers slammed an 84-year-old man to the ground, fracturing a vertebra and causing his head to crack “like a watermelon,” as a witness testified, Demings described the maneuver as a “defensive tactic” and told reporters the officer “performed the technique within department guidelines.”
Demings’s trailblazing record as the first woman and second African American to run the Orlando police is the centerpiece of a rising national political profile — one that has made her one of the more intriguing names on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s shortlist of potential running mates. Her work as a police officer, after all, helped elect her to Congress in 2016 and prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to tap her last year as an impeachment manager to prosecute the case against President Trump. It was a starring role that first sparked speculation about the potential of a charismatic African American woman from a key swing state on the Democratic national ticket.
But as public perceptions of police brutality have shifted amid the racial justice movement that has erupted since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Demings’s past work in law enforcement is emerging less as a clear selling point and more as a complicating factor.
Demings, 63, who has touted her policing career as an asset for a potential national run, has sought to recast herself from law enforcement champion to critic — and someone who could be a bridge between police and minority communities. It was a shift she signaled clearly in May when she penned a Washington Post op-ed under the headline, “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”
Back in Orlando, critics describe Demings as a status-quo chief who did little to improve the culture of a police department that, at one point, used force at nearly twice the rate of similarly sized cities. Demings was well-liked, they said, but not viewed as someone who strongly challenged entrenched interests such as the police union or the heavily white, male roster of officers who worked under her.
“It looked good for the photo-ops, but as far as making any changes, bringing law enforcement into the 21st century, I didn’t see it,” said Lawanna Gelzer, an Orlando activist who has also run for elected office. Sh said Demings’s response to police violence was inadequate. “I just saw the continuation of a problem that was going to explode one day . . . The people that was living on the west side, we were still getting our butts whooped [by police] when she was chief.”
Demings recalls the situation differently.
In a recent interview, she described herself as a champion of community policing who disbanded a dysfunctional plainclothes drug unit, focused police resources on the city’s most violent repeat offenders and marshaled city services to deal with the societal roots of crime.
“A lot of times, people focus on what . . . makes the headlines,” she said. “Most of this stuff nobody even knows about because I believe that when you do good, you don’t have to call a press conference.”
Demings said she knew her race and gender would draw additional scrutiny to her performance in a mostly white male profession.
“I remember saying to myself ‘Oh God, now, Orlando gets its first woman [chief] who happens to be black. If I can’t reduce the crime rate, what are people going to say?” she recalled. “And I bet you can guess who the majority of people who were being murdered, or who would be victimized in terms of violent crime.”
But she said she realized her ability to quiet potential critics and improve life for Orlandoans of all colors would depend on the same thing: being good at the job she was appointed to do.
“So I launched an all-out war on violent crime,” she said.
'You can do better'
Valdez Venita Butler was born in a two-room house in Jacksonville, Fla., the youngest of seven children. Her mother was a maid and her father was a janitor, but they lived long enough to see their daughter sworn in as chief of the Orlando Police Department. They died months apart in 2009, never seeing her become a member of the House from Florida’s 10th Congressional District or a manager in the impeachment of Trump or, more recently, a name on Biden’s list of potential running mates.
After responding to a radio ad looking for Orlando officers, Demings was elected president of her class at the police training academy and went to work on the midnight shift of Orlando’s west side. What followed was a steady rise and a steady drumbeat of praise from supervisors who saw her as a rising star. Her lone performance appraisal that could be described as middling came when she was pregnant, in 1989. As chief, she was censured by Internal Affairs after her service weapon was stolen out of her unlocked police SUV.
Demings said her critics constantly bring up the incident, saying she lost her department-issued gun when it was in fact stolen out of her unlocked SUV.
“There is clearly a difference, both are bad, but clearly a difference,” she said. “I am an ‘it is what it is’ kind of person . . . I’m not going to hide from anything. I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to try to make bad look good. It is what it is, but I do expect people to be honest and fair.”
But she was widely hailed as competent as she climbed up through the police department.
She married Jerry Demings, another ascendant black officer in the police department. He was appointed chief in 1998 and now serves as Orange County mayor. At one point, husband and wife ran neighboring law enforcement agencies.
Those close to Demings described her as a charismatic but private woman of deep faith, who sang in the choir at St. Mark AME Zion church but occasionally slipped out of services to respond to crime scenes, emerging from her department-issued Chevy Tahoe in her Sunday best.
As a chief with a social work background, she leaned heavily on community policing and insisted Orlando couldn’t arrest its way out of deeply ingrained social problems.
But she also put the onus on black communities to work with police to combat crime.
“She became like mama,” said Terence Gray, the church’s pastor who also served as a police chaplain. “She could go into some communities, especially on Mercy Drive, that was filled with nothing but crime, where people got shot over there something like every other day. She went over there and took all of us as her supporters and had conversations with people and acted like mama. She was like ‘You all know you can do better than this.’ ”
After a triple homicide at an apartment complex called the Palms early in Demings’s tenure, she called a community meeting and encouraged people to cooperate with police to clean up the community — but also brought city resources to address quality-of-life issues. The city put down mulch. Demings passed around her office number. One woman called the chief’s office saying her refrigerator was broken, spoiling her groceries. Demings took the call — then worked to get the woman’s fridge fixed.
“We did everything short of move in there,” she said.
Expanding the role of officers was a hallmark of her time at the top of OPD, Demings said, policies seated in her belief that officers couldn’t just “arrest our way out of the problem.” She involved her officers in youth-mentoring programs and job-training programs. She recalled officers knocking on the doors of people who were not showing up to a GED program.
“Police are in the business of fighting crime, but because so many other systems fail, we found ourselves filling that gap,” she said.
“Look, I grew up poor, black and female in the South, and I know you can be one heartbeat away from making it or not making it, and I didn’t let . . . the young boys and girls that I had contact with, I didn’t let them have an excuse. I wanted them to succeed.”
Demings had inherited a city plagued by violent crime; Orlando experienced its highest number of killings in the year before she took over as chief. Violent crime corrodes any community, but its effects can be particularly damaging in a city that has an economy based on welcoming tourists from across the world.
“We had had our most homicides ever in Orlando in the year before she became chief,” said John Mina, who worked as her staff sergeant, before moving on to become Orlando police chief and then Orange County sheriff. He said even her biggest critics didn’t doubt her competence or the downward trend of the crime statistics.
“I’ve seen in my 30-year career people promoted and transferred to positions they were not able to do. They were promoted well out of their abilities,” Mina said. “That wasn’t her. There wasn’t a policy she wasn’t familiar with. There wasn’t a thing she didn’t know.”
'A typical caretaker chief'
Daniel Daley was angry when he walked out of the bar and saw his Chrysler being hoisted up by a tow truck, then incensed when he learned it would cost $50 to avoid a costlier tow. The 84-year-old transferred his ire to the policeman who showed up to mitigate the dispute a short time later, jamming his finger into the chest of Officer Travis Lamont one time too many.
Lamont used a hip check to slam the World War II veteran onto the pavement, cracking a vertebra. When police leaders determined that Lamont behaved within policy, the case became a symbol of unchecked police excesses.
Daley sued, and a jury awarded him $880,000, a settlement that remains the department’s highest payout over a use of force. A decade later, it continued to be a blemish on Demings’s time as chief. “Nobody wanted that to happen,” she said of Daley’s injury.
Still, she defends her department’s decision, arguing that force is excessive if it violates department policies, not if it results in an injury. She said several supervisors in Lamont’s chain of command — including her — reviewed his actions, all coming to the conclusion that his use of force wasn’t excessive.
Lamont could not be reached for comment. The attorney who represented him and the city in the civil trial, Dennis O’Connor, said Demings as chief was fair but also “supported the officers.”
“I found her to be principled,” he said. “I would not think she would unjustifiably elevate the police officers above others. She recognized the need for the cases to run their course and let the facts come out. She wouldn’t get caught up in the rhetoric that was being said in a lot of these cases.”
Demings’s critics have also scrutinized her for the department’s handling of the case of Fernando Trinidad, an officer who pushed a woman down a flight of stairs during an altercation at a club where he worked an off-duty job. Though the incident happened a few months before Demings was appointed chief, she signed off on discipline that critics decried as a slap on the wrist. In the end, Trinidad lost one vacation day. Trinidad and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
Demings told The Post that the police department’s hands were tied because investigators didn’t inform Trinidad about one of the charges he faced, a technicality that could have resulted in the officer facing no punishment at all.
“When policies are codified into state statute, it can determine how officers are investigated, how they are disciplined, when they are interviewed, you know how they are notified of charges, allowing them to see every witness statement before you can talk to them,” she said. “And when those things are codified in state statute, they make it extremely difficult.”
But attorneys who brought excessive force cases against the department during Demings’s tenure faulted her for not pushing hard enough against a disciplinary system tilted in favor of police officers.
Demings rose to prominence during an era when Orlando chiefs served for a few years and then often took a shot at higher office, said William Ruffier, an attorney who brought several excessive-force cases against the department, including during Demings’s time as chief.
“It used to be the same chief [would serve] forever, but now the position is really a steppingstone,” Ruffier said. “Nobody that runs as chief comes in with any great agenda to reform the police department. They just want to not make waves and move onto their bigger, better position.”
Ruffier and others said numerous factors at the time hampered a police chief’s power to change the system, including a police union that held sway over local political leaders and negotiated contracts that imposed limits on punishments that could be imposed on rank-and-file officers.
Leaders of the police union did not return calls seeking comment.
“Val Demings when she came in as chief, from my perspective, she’s just a typical caretaker chief doing her two to four years,” Ruffier said. “She was able to navigate herself politically though a white Southern police department, which is a tribute to her. But she’s not in a position where she’s going to reform the department.”
But Demings said she held officers to a high standard and wasn’t shy about initiatives unpopular with the rank and file, including publicizing a list that ranked officers’ performance and breaking up units found to be ineffective.
“I was on them every single day about treating people with dignity and respect so for them to read ‘what the hell are you doing,’ every man and woman who worked with me, that sounds real familiar to them. I’m sure they were like ‘Oh, there she goes again.’ ”
Ellen McCarthy and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.