An Orlando police officer shoved a 27-year-old Hispanic woman down a flight of stairs, breaking her ankle. A jury ordered him to pay her medical bills.
Another officer slammed an 84-year-old World War II veteran to the ground during a car-towing dispute, resulting in doctors’ putting him into a medically induced coma. The city had to pay him $880,000.
Outside a Target store, officers investigating a robbery surrounded a minivan and fired into it nearly a dozen times, critically injuring an unarmed man. He won a $750,000 settlement.
The episodes all occurred between 2007 and 2010, long before the ongoing protests currently sweeping the country, denouncing the disproportionate use of police force against people of color. If the Orlando police felt even a fraction of the pressure that departments face today, the leadership did not bend to it: The chief, Val Demings, defended the officers in each case.
A decade later, Demings, now a second-term Democratic congresswoman, has emerged as a finalist to be Joe Biden’s running mate. She rose in politics as a Black woman with law enforcement credentials, but her moment in the spotlight comes as the nation reckons with the difficult legacy of police brutality and racial discrimination.
If she is chosen as the vice-presidential nominee, her career could prove to be a political asset against President Donald Trump, who is building his re-election campaign around his call for law and order, while attacking Biden as weak on crime. But in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it could also be a political liability.
“This is an opportunity to change the way things are,” said David Porter, who worked for Demings early in her political career. “I just don’t know that picking a cop would send the right message right now.”
In recent weeks, Demings has become a leading voice calling for changes in policing, and she has cast herself as an experienced reformer, repeating that she started out as a social worker and brought a “social worker’s heart” to police work. But a review by the New York Times shows a more complicated record: that of a police leader with a long history of defending the status quo.
Demings, 63, spent 27 years in one of the most violent police departments of its size in the United States, and she repeatedly defended fellow officers. During her time as chief, crime sharply declined, but police use of force remained high; a 2015 study by the Orlando Sentinel showed that in the second half of Demings’ tenure and during the tenure of her successor, officers used force at a rate that was twice as high as those of officers at other departments of similar size.
In an interview this week, Demings stood by her record on police accountability, saying she improved hiring practices and increased officer training. But she said her top priority as chief was addressing a spike in crime.
“Police work is not a perfect science,” she said. “We’re there to clean up messes. And sometimes when you clean up messes, it’s not pretty.”
As protests have swept the nation, Demings has responded carefully. She published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled, “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?” But she has declined to say whether the officers who killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., should be arrested, as protesters have demanded.
This spring, before the protests began but after her role as House manager in Trump’s impeachment trial increased her profile, Demings updated her campaign website. Her logo previously read “Chief Val Demings for Congress.” Now it says “Val Demings for Congress.”