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Val Demings' record as police chief cuts both ways as Biden's running mate search intensifies

As Rep. Val Demings has risen through the political ranks, one line from her resume has stood out: her three-year tenure as the chief of the Orlando Police Department.

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Dan Merica
Caroline Kenny, CNN
CNN — As Rep. Val Demings has risen through the political ranks, one line from her resume has stood out: her three-year tenure as the chief of the Orlando Police Department.

That includes this moment, as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden considers tapping her as his running mate. But as the nation once again grapples with the impact that law enforcement has on Black Americans after multiple killings of Black people at the hands of police, Demings' lengthy law enforcement career is getting renewed scrutiny, with some top Democrats arguing it positions the Black congresswoman perfectly for this moment of national reckoning, while others say it means she is deeply intertwined with the same law enforcement establishment at the center of skepticism and scrutiny.

Demings, in an interview with CNN, spoke highly of her nearly three decades with the Orlando Police Department, arguing that she became a police officer with hopes of changing an entity viewed skeptically by Black Americans from the inside. But Demings also admitted that she had not accomplished everything she had hoped to during her three years as chief from 2007 to 2011, and when asked whether a former police officer is the best person to join a presidential ticket at this time, she emphasized the two years she spent as a social worker with Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

"If given the opportunity, number one I believe the vice president's role is to advocate for the president's agenda, with the president's agenda being the people's agenda. And I think I bring to the table on the ground experience," Demings said. "I grew up poor in the South, female in the South, but decided to dedicate my life, based on some of the injustices and discriminations that I faced in my own life, dedicate my life to making my community better. I worked as a social worker when nobody was looking."

She added: "Nobody, obviously, has been able to completely rid this earth of racism -- we have to fight that every day -- but if you look at the things I did, it is obvious that I brought my social worker heart and skill to the job of being a police chief."

Demings, in a sign of how seriously she is taking Biden's vice presidential search, has fully rejected the idea that her record as a police chief somehow eliminates her from contention. Instead, the Florida congresswoman has argued that her background makes her a better pick as the nation reckons with centuries of racism and police brutality.

"I'm not sure I want the job as much as the job may want me," Demings said Monday. "And I say that because I think that people are chosen, I believe, at certain times to address certain things. And if we look at what is going on in our country right now, I grew up the daughter of a maid and a janitor in the South. I know what discrimination feels like, I know what racism feels like, because I have been subjected to it."

Path to police officer

Born in 1957, she was the youngest of seven to a father who worked as a janitor and a mother who was a housekeeper -- all descendants of slaves. The would-be congresswoman attended segregated schools for much of her childhood, before attending and graduating from Florida State University with a degree in criminology.

After two years as a social worker, Demings joined the Orlando Police Department in 1983, where she rose through the ranks and in 2007 became the first woman to lead the department.

Demings, when speaking about her time as the chief of police, often cites the same statistic: The violent crime rate in Orlando fell more than 40% during her tenure, according to FBI statistics.

But investigations by the Orlando Sentinel found that the Orlando Police Department, in just one year under Demings, used force 574 times, around 20% more than officers in some similarly sized cities, like Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Demings, as chief, often defended these cases, at one point writing in 2008, "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 retired from the police force in 2011 before unsuccessfully running for Congress in 2012 and Orange County mayor in 2014. With the backing of the party's establishment, Demings successfully won her first elected office in 2016.

The congresswoman is married to Jerry Demings, the current mayor of Orange County, Florida, which includes the city of Orlando. Jerry Demings served as chief of police in Orlando until 2002, before his wife filled the role, and he served as the Orange County sheriff during the same period that his wife was chief of the Orlando Police Department.

Impeachment raises profile

Demings' national profile rose precipitously after she served as one of the Democratic impeachment managers charged with making the case against President Donald Trump earlier this year. The Biden running mate chatter began soon afterward, and her stock has risen significantly in recent weeks as she brings forth the experience of being both a former law enforcement officer and a Black woman raising Black sons in America.

Biden has committed to picking a female running mate, and there is mounting pressure from outside groups urging the former vice president to select a Black woman for the job. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a onetime top prospect for Biden, bowed out of the running last week and urged him to pick a Black woman.

Demings is one of several women whose names are being floated. Others include Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Critics attack Demings' record

Demings remains proud of her time as the top cop in Orlando. But she said that while police shootings have always been a reality, the last month of protests -- sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and further ignited by killings at the hands of officers in places like Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky -- have forced her to consider her tenure in a different way.

"As I look at what has happened over the last few weeks and think back to my time, certainly I think gosh, in my three and a half years as chief of police, I would never say I did enough," Demings said. "Did I arrest enough violent offenders? Probably not. Did I create more policies to run a more efficient police department? Probably not. ... I think good leaders always look within and say there is always room to do more."

That kind of reflection will never be enough for some of Demings' most fervent critics in Orlando, who have responded to Biden's consideration of Demings with contempt, promising that the former vice president would be making a mistake by picking the congresswoman or anyone tied to law enforcement.

"Her accomplishments are to be awarded, however, I don't just look at the cover of the book or the title, I turn the pages. And when I turn the pages and because I am in her district and because I know her, I don't like what I see," said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network's Central Florida chapter.

Gelzer is not alone.

Progressive activists like Mike Cantone, who once supported one of the congresswoman's bids, said Demings' tenure did not frustrate him as much as that she has stood by the city's police establishment since leaving her post, despite the fact that use of force has climbed in the city since her tenure.

"This is a pattern that did not start under Val Demings' leadership but it sure did not end," Cantone said, "and she's now in a better position of authority and she refuses to step in and change things locally."

The concerns are political, too. As pressure has mounted on Biden to pick an African American woman, Demings' stock has risen among people close to him, leading activists like Gelzer, Cantone and others to openly worry about the congresswoman's ability to explain her police record at this moment.

A month ago, "one of her greatest assets was having been chief of police," said Bob Poe, a former Florida Democratic Party chairman who ran against Demings in the 2016 primary. "But now, because of the current atmosphere, it could work against her."

Poe, during a notably contentious primary campaign, ran ads against Demings accusing her of overseeing "police brutality" during her time with the police force.

"So much of politics is about timing," Poe said. "If there's a stumbling block, I think it'll be because of the timing."

Biden's shortlist

Demings has been directly engaged with all the vice presidential speculation.

"I am on the shortlist and I'm honored to be on the shortlist," Demings said during an interview on SiriusXM's "The Dean Obeidallah Show" last month, adding, "If Vice President Biden asked me to serve along with him, I would be honored to do just that."

Demings also hasn't been wary in saying she wants the job and would say yes if Biden asked her to fill the role.

"If I received a call from Joe Biden, I would absolutely accept the job and accept the challenge," Demings said during an appearance on "The Late Late Show" on CBS earlier this month.

Florida is one of the most important states a candidate needs to win in the presidential election, and supporters of Demings say having her on the national ticket alongside Biden could help in the key swing state. Before the Florida primary in March, Demings appeared alongside former second lady Jill Biden in Orlando during a campaign stop, and since the pandemic hit she has participated in "Women for Biden" virtual fundraising events.

But Demings, in an interview with CNN, declined to engage in any conversations about becoming Biden's running mate. When pressed, she joked that Biden's search is like an "active investigation" that she often oversaw as police chief, one that she was not allowed to "confirm or deny" publicly.

But Demings pushed back against her critics by saying these last few weeks of strife have caused her to "recommit my life to being a part of the solution and not the problem" when it comes to issues of police brutality against Black Americans.

And she had a pointed message for those critics: "You can sit on the sidelines and do nothing and not have to worry about anybody not supporting you or criticizing your work, because you're not doing a damn thing."

And, with a nod to Teddy Roosevelt, the nation's 26th president, Demings called back to her family's roots as slaves brought to this country against their will.

"The credit goes to the man or woman in the arena -- jump in," she said. "We need you to help solve 400 years of oppression and discrimination in this country. I chose to be part of the solution. I will continue to be part of the solution regardless of what happens with Joe Biden's campaign."

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