Freshman Rep. Val B. Demings, 60, a Florida Democrat, talks about being the first woman to be Orlando’s police chief, lessons from running the department, and her Harley.
Q: What has surprised you so far in your time in Congress?
A: Probably the biggest surprise has just been the floor schedule. We know we’re here to pass legislation, we know we’re here to vote on legislation, but we don’t always really know when the votes are going to be called. I’m on the committees on Homeland Security and Oversight and Government Reform and that’s really where we do the majority of our work. It’s exciting, we have a lot of issues that we’re dealing with and sometimes, in the middle of committee work, they’ll call for votes. We might be interviewing witnesses and it’s really a good, solid line of questioning, really important, and then they’ll call votes.
Q: What originally made you want to get into law enforcement?
A: I majored in criminal justice at Florida State and at that time, I wanted to go to law school. When I graduated from college, I was broke and an opportunity presented itself to work at the Orlando Police Department. I remember some of the criminal justice courses that I took, and the law enforcement side, and was pretty fascinated with them and thought, “You know what? I really want to go to law school, but maybe I’ll work at the police department for a while and save up some money. Maybe a couple of years or so and then go to law school.”
After a couple of months on the street, I just loved it. It’s immediate gratification. If you’re in the business of helping people, when people are in trouble, they pick up the phone and they call the police, really believing that when we get there, we’re going to make things different, better, safer for them. And I just love that feeling. We get that hot call over the radio … and we would get there as fast as we could and we would stop that threat. I love that feeling and I decided to stay.
Of course, I’m glad I did. I had a wonderful 27-year career in law enforcement.
Q: You were the first female police chief at the Orlando Police Department.
A: It had been 32 years for the Orlando Police Department to get their first woman chief, although the first women were hired at OPD in the 1940s. Of course, they weren’t allowed to do police work, they weren’t allowed to even carry firearms. If you had a runaway that police found or a child was lost, they would bring the children into the station and the female officers would basically babysit them until the parents came.
It wasn’t until around 1972 that the first woman was actually assigned to patrol. When you think about it, that wasn’t really that long ago. In 2007, I was appointed the first woman chief of police. When I was appointed chief, crime was at an all-time high in Orlando.
At the end of my tenure, we reduced violent crime by 40 percent, which was the most dramatic reduction in the history of the city. So I guess the first woman didn’t do too badly.
Q: What did you learn from running a police department that you can use in Congress?
A: When I was the police chief and I remember my meeting with the men and women there, although we would occasionally discuss politics, we didn’t focus on political party — we focused on problems and we focused on solutions. We also realized that the days of the police having all the answers and being able to do it on our own were over and that we really needed partnerships. We really needed to form relationships with the community and work with the community to solve problems. And so, I think those are the great skills that I learned and that I bring over. We focus so much on political party here. I didn’t reduce violent crime in Orlando by focusing on political party.
Q: I hear you have a Harley at home. Do you plan on bringing it here?
A: I want to. I’d love to put my Harley on the Auto Train and bring it here. But I’m not sure when I would ride it. I hear there’s a motorcycle caucus but there are several members of Congress who ride. I would love to do a benefit ride with my fellow members from the House and the Senate who ride. That’s a bipartisan place we could start.
Last book you read: “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren