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Although she's only been in Congress for three years, Florida Democrat Val Demings is being considered as a possible vice presidential pick for Joe Biden. Demings had a prominent role in President Trump's impeachment trial. And before coming to Congress, Demings, who's African American, was the first woman to lead Orlando's police force. NPR's Greg Allen reports that at a time when nationwide protests are focused on police violence, some activists say a former police chief sends the wrong message to voters.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Val Demings grew up in Jacksonville, one of seven kids raised by parents in a city where schools and lunch counters were segregated. She learned about racism early.
VAL DEMINGS: I was called the N-word when I was 4 years old. And I can remember not even really understanding what it meant.
ALLEN: Demings became the first person in her family to graduate from college and began her career as a social worker. She soon moved to law enforcement and was hired by the Orlando Police Department. She was there 27 years, eventually serving as chief of police. Despite her long career in law enforcement, as protests have swept the nation, Demings has been outspoken on the need for police reform.
DEMINGS: I am very proud of the persons who are demonstrating in the street. They should be demonstrating police misconduct.
ALLEN: Demings supports a police reform bill moving through the House that would ban the use of chokeholds and many no-knock warrants, among other things. She says her career has prepared her for this moment.
DEMINGS: I've been on both sides of this issue. As a social worker and as a law enforcement officer, I've enforced the laws, and now I write them. And having been on the street, seeing the vulnerabilities in the law and now having the ability to write them, I think that's pretty good experience to bring to Congress.
JONATHAN ALINGU: I don't think it's the right moment for Congresswoman Demings.
ALLEN: Jonathan Alingu is with Central Florida Jobs for Justice. While he has nothing against Demings personally, Alingu says, as a possible VP pick, her connection to the police department is a problem.
ALINGU: There are many people that you can talk to within the city that have their qualms with the police department that have never been solved. She's part of that legacy. That's something she has to answer for.
ALLEN: Demings served as Orlando's police chief for 3 1/2 years. An investigation by The Orlando Sentinel found that over a four-year period that included some of Deming's tenure, the city's police officers used force in arrests at double the rate of some other agencies, including Tampa. The investigation found that more than half of the cases involved African American suspects. Jerry Girley is a civil rights attorney in Orlando.
JERRY GIRLEY: The police department has been like every other police department that we're talking about in the United States of America, over-policing the African American community.
ALLEN: The department was sued in 2011 after an officer broke the neck of an 84-year-old man who was thrown to the ground. A jury later awarded him some $800,000 in damages. Demings determined the takedown was within department guidelines but later ordered a review of the use-of-force policy. Demings says she worked as chief to improve the Orlando Police Department's process for hiring, training and monitoring officers in the field.
DEMINGS: I instituted what we call an early warning system when I was the police chief, which gave us a better way of tracking officers who were possibly exhibiting behavior that caused us concern. But we would pull them out of their assignments, send them to counseling if they needed it, reassign them.
ALLEN: Although he's been critical of the Orlando Police Department, attorney Jerry Girley says one thing he and others in the black community appreciated about Demings is that she was always open and willing to listen.
GIRLEY: You're never going to get everything you want, everything that you would like, but they did have a sense that she was trying to be fair.
ALLEN: Demings believes the activists and demonstrators will play a key role in the fall election. If there's any chance to have really meaningful police reform, she says, it all culminates at the ballot box. And she's indicated she's ready, if asked, to join Joe Biden at the top of that ballot.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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