Transcript: Rep. Val Demings on

The following is a transcript of an interview with Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Florida that aired on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, on “Face the Nation.” 

MARGARET BRENNAN: One day after the video of Tyre Nichols’ deadly encounter with police was made public, the Memphis police shut down its SCORPION Unit, a specialized group, which includes the five officers that have now been charged with second degree murder. For more, we now go to former Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings, who spent 27 years with the Orlando Police Department, including four years as its chief. It’s good to talk to you.

VAL DEMINGS: Margaret, thank you. It’s good to be with you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What was your reaction when you saw the video of these five officers beating Tyre Nichols?

DEMINGS: You know, as someone who spent 27 years in law enforcement, started out as an officer on midnight shift patrol and served in every rank served as the chief of police. I’ve seen policing at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst. But what I saw in the video was shocking and appalling. The gruesome beating. My heart goes out to the Wells-Nichols family, it goes out to his community. You know, and I so appreciate the words from Mrs. Wells when she not only talked about the gruesome death of her son, but also spoke to the five officers involved by saying that you disgraced yourselves and your own family. So as a career law enforcement officer, I could not believe what I was seeing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It stood out to me that those five officers in Memphis were between the ages of 24 and 32 years old, they were all hired within the last six years. Is this an experience problem? Is this a bad cop problem?

DEMINGS: You know, Margaret, it is so important that we look at, as police executives and you know, there’s not much of an appetite. We know in Washington, D.C. now to come up with the national standards that I believe are so desperately needed. I also questioned what state legislatures are willing to do. But this falls back now on police executives or chiefs or sheriff’s to come up with much needed reforms that start with hiring the brightest and the best, having psychological evaluations being a part of that to ensure fitness for duty. And look, I’m more than familiar with specialized units. Many of them are the results of calls from the community to- for officers to address crime activities, and like drug activity, gang activity, but we have to make sure as police executives that we are putting the most seasoned and most experienced officers in this unit that are well trained, and highly supervised. So as I look at the night that went off the rails in Memphis, there are a lot of questions that are unanswered but have to be answered. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But we are hearing from mayors across this country that they are facing, in many places, shortages of police officers, people willing to do the work, mayor of New Orleans was here last week telling us that. She’s now asked for federal marshals and ATF agents in her city. But why is this such a problem?

DEMINGS: Well, you know hiring, as someone who has actually hired law enforcement officers, it has always been challenging, not necessarily because of the lack of numbers. But the effort to make sure that we are hiring people who have the right temperament to be able to do the job. I can remember in a year having 40,000 people who wanted to be Orlando police officers, and we ended up hiring maybe 20 of that 40,000, trying to take every effort every step to make sure that we hire the best person to do the job. And so hiring has always been challenging. But we also again, police executives have to be creative, not just wait for people to knock on that door. But to go out into various communities visiting college campuses, making sure that police departments do continue to reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve. This is a time that we have to be- use new and creative approaches to making sure that we’re bringing in the right men and women. It really starts with hiring, making sure that we are bringing in the right men and women to do the job.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How would you judge the performance of the Memphis Police chief who has said this unit, the SCORPION unit, did good work?

DEMINGS: You know, I know CJ Davis. She is a professional law enforcement officer. She worked as a deputy chief in Atlanta, the chief of Durham. She is now of course the chief in Memphis and I think that she has handled this very tragic incident as well as she could. We’re all- have commented on the swift action with- the firing them- working very closely with the DA to bring those charges for- forward in a very expeditious manner. She’s also been very transparent with the community. And boy do we need to see more of that. She was also the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. She is very well trained. And I do believe, while this is one of the toughest moments in our country, that she is the right leader to lead us through this very tough time.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I wonder because I was- you know, reading a piece in New York Magazine entitled “The End of Police Reform,” and it pointed out- and in Memphis, adaptations had been made since 2020, in terms of mandating de-escalation, banning chokeholds. There were body cameras, that wasn’t a deterrent here. The police force is 60% Black, it reported, with a Black police chief. Even with these adjustments, this horrific situation happened. So when you hear calls for police reform, what is the piece of reform, you think that makes the difference? Or is it just recruitment?

DEMINGS: Margaret, we have made calls of police- for police reform. Especially since the brutal death of George Floyd. Now let me say this, I was in Congress during the time that George- voted for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which no- we all know it was not perfect. But my goodness, I sure believe it was a major step in the right direction. And I think that too many police executives think that any criticism of the police or any efforts to reform or modify hiring standards, modified training standards, make sure they have the technology that they need to better be able to do the job, calling for national databases and better enforcement. Too many people see that as we’re not supporting the police. Well, I see it as exactly that. Supporting the police, giving them the tools that they need to do the job, but also to hold them accountable. And so yeah, it goes- it’s not just hiring but it doggone sure starts with hiring, when they’re in training, making sure that we have the right field training officers who we know set the standard for what’s acceptable and unacceptable on the street. Looking at- internally, at policies and modifying those use of force policies. Yes, the body cameras, think about if we did not have this footage- but this situation was so off the rails and so outside of the box. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And I- I hear your passion there. Thank you for sharing your analysis with us. We’ll be back in a moment.

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