And why not? Demings is an African American woman from Central Florida, a representative of a key Democratic Party constituency from a vital part of a vital swing state. She’s smart, youngish (for a national politician), a fresh face without a long voting record (she was elected in 2016) and a former biggish-city police chief who adroitly walks the line between acknowledging problems in law enforcement and assuring suburbanites she’s not a radical.
But a line from an interview she did with CBS last week grabbed my attention. Asked about Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that policing does not have a systemic racism problem, Demings responded, “I’ve said it multiple times long before the tragedy that happened with Mr. Floyd, that racism is and continues to be the ghost in the room [of law enforcement]. And, look, I hear what Attorney General Barr is saying. I don’t believe he believes that. I believe that is just a talking point, and unfortunately, *when you fail to publicly admit that there is a problem, then it is extremely difficult to address the problem.”
The emphasis is mine. Remember those words. We’ll come back to them. First, some context.
Demings was the Orlando Police Department’s chief from 2007-2011, and she’d been on the force since the 1980s, working her way up. For most of the 2000s, I reported on Orlando’s city government and its police department. For lack of a better term, the OPD then was a shit show: violent, unaccountable, vindictive, absurdly moralistic.
Its vice squad – formed with other area law enforcement agencies but led by the OPD – hunted strip clubs and porn purveyors with gleeful zeal. In one famous episode, after I investigated the vice squad’s messy investigation into a predominantly Black strip club, the vice squad launched a racketeering investigation into my then-employer, Orlando Weekly.
That’s the police culture in which Demings was inculcated.
Which brings me to the case of Fernando Trinidad. On April 12, 2007, Trinidad, an off-duty Orlando cop working security at a downtown nightclub, pushed a woman down a flight of stairs, badly injuring her ankle, then lied about what happened to his fellow officers. The woman, who was arrested on the basis of Trinidad’s lies, lost her job and would likely have spent time in prison had a surveillance video not exposed the truth. When all of this came to light, the OPD’s Internal Affairs Division decided that Trinidad – who, in February 2008, left voicemails on a woman’s phone, threatening, “If I ever fucking see you, you’re going to get the biggest fucking smack in your face, the biggest fucking smack,” according to court documents – had engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer and had falsified police records.
As punishment, he would lose two vacation days.
Val Demings, the deputy chief of police, thought that was too steep a price for Trinidad to pay. She reduced the punishment to *one lost vacation day.
Between 2003 and March 2008 – as far back as records went – 98 claims of excessive use of force were lodged with Internal Affairs, I subsequently learned. In every case, the accused cop was cleared. This, despite a slew of lawsuits the city was facing and, in some cases, unequivocal evidence that the police did exactly what they were accused of doing.
I wrote an exhaustive story detailing all manner of flagrant, unpunished abuses (“Might makes right,” July 10, 2008). It concluded that the “OPD is a place where rogue cops operate with impunity, and there’s nothing anybody who finds himself at the wrong end of their short fuse can do about it.”
Here’s the part where I want you to remember Demings’s words: *When you fail to publicly admit that there is a problem, then it is extremely difficult to address the problem.
Demings – who by the time the story was published in July 2008 had been promoted to chief – responded with a letter to the editor (not to the *Weekly, the paper that wrote the story, but to the city’s daily newspaper). “Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church,” she began. “It won’t take long to find one. … 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 OK, for the most part, in the performance of their duties.”
Well, give the cops a cookie every time they don’t beat the shit out of someone! Nothing to see here, move along.
Demings resigned in 2011 ahead of her first run for Congress the next year (she lost). But she left behind a problem that was never addressed. In 2015, an *Orlando Sentinel investigation found that between 2010 and 2014, Orlando cops used force an average of 640 times a year, mostly on Black people; shot and killed 10 people, seven of whom were Black; and the city or its insurer had paid 30 people more than $3.6 million to settle excessive-force lawsuits, double or triple the amount of similar-size cities.
The OPD still ranks among the country’s bloodiest departments. Per capita, in fact, it was the fourth-deadliest department in the country between 2013 and 2019, according to the website Mapping Police Violence. Black people were 4.6 times more likely to be killed by cops than whites; Latinx people, 2.7 times more likely.
Demings was not a transformative police chief. But she never tried to be. Until her political ambitions demanded otherwise, she hewed to the thin-blue-line line that cops are good people with hard jobs, so get off their backs.
But as a potential future vice president once said, when you fail to publicly admit that there is a problem, then it is extremely difficult to address the problem.