Julia Manchester and Scott Wong, The Hill, June 19, 2020
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is coming under intense scrutiny from progressives over her record as Orlando police chief a decade ago, posing a potential hurdle to her prospects of becoming Joe Biden‘s running mate.
Biden is facing growing pressure to pick an African American woman as his vice president following nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
And many Democrats have pointed to Demings, a second-term Florida congresswoman, as someone who could straddle the emotional divide over police reform: a former police chief who can speak personally about police brutality and systemic racism against blacks but who insulates Democrats from GOP charges they are soft-on-crime liberals.
But as Demings’s star rises, some Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other progressive activists are taking aim at her tenure as Orlando’s first female police chief, which spanned 2007 to 2011, and they are questioning whether someone who spent a decades-long career in law enforcement is right for this moment.
“While she was chief of police, I felt like public policies and changes to address community policing should have been done. It was not,” said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network’s Central Florida chapter. “We’ve had a problem here for years.”
“I will go vote, but I will not vote for her if she’s on that ticket,” Gelzer added. “Biden needs to listen to the people of Orlando and of Florida and elsewhere — not law enforcement — at this time.”
Similarly, some BLM activists told The Hill that Demings, or anyone else who wore a police uniform, is a non-starter for them as a vice presidential candidate.
“She’s a cop. She was a top cop at an extremely brutal police department. She was a vocal supporter of brutal actions by police,” said Hawk Newsome, who co-founded BLM’s Greater New York chapter with his sister, congressional candidate Chivona Newsome.
“We are working to abolish police. We are working to defund police,” Hawk said in a phone interview. “When you are a police officer, you are not black anymore. You are blue.”
He then turned to his sister and asked if Biden should pick a police officer as his VP. “Hell no!” she screamed from across the room.
A 2015 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel into the city’s police department found that from 2010 to 2014 — a period partially overlapping Demings’s tenure — officers used force 3,100 times, including kicking, pepper-spraying or shocking suspects.
And Orlando police used force more frequently on black suspects, the newspaper found, mirroring findings elsewhere in the country. Some 55 percent of use-of-force incidents involved blacks, though only 28 percent of the city’s population is black. Seven of the 10 people shot to death by officers were black.
And as protests have raged in Orlando and other cities, Demings has positioned herself as a strong advocate of the bold police reforms that House Democrats will bring to the floor next week.
“As a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?” Demings wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post days after Floyd’s death.
The scrutiny of Demings comes as Biden himself faces pressure from the left to change his own policies on policing, in part over his involvement in drafting a 1994 crime bill widely seen as having led to a surge in the incarceration rates of African Americans.
Biden’s team is vetting a small group of potential running mates that includes four black women: Demings, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who herself is grappling with police-brutality incidents in her city.
Harris is seen as the battle-tested front-runner for the nomination. But like Demings, Harris’s own law enforcement background as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general has come under focus as activists question her criminal justice record and the Golden State’s disproportionate imprisonment of blacks.