Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings is dedicated to serving and protecting his Florida community. A former Chief of the Orlando Police Department and Director of Public Safety for Orange County, Demings’s interest in law enforcement was sparked from his childhood experiences watching television shows such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mannix. After joining the Orlando Police Department in 1981, Demings moved up the leadership ranks to become the department’s first African-American chief in 1998.In 2008, Demings became the department’s first African-American sheriff.
Demings is fluent in Floridian. When asked of his favorite Florida person, place, or thing that deserves more attention, he insists that the answer is immigration reform. “We have lawful immigrants here that are working in our agricultural businesses and then of course we have undocumented persons who are also contributing to our economy, and I believe that we have got to do a better job as a nation of people and as Floridians, to address immigration reform.”
With more than 60% of the vote, Demings won the Orange County mayoral race in August of 2018. When previously asked about the mayor race, Demings indicated his strong interest in running for mayor, as well as the overwhelming amount of support he had garnered thus far. “It’s a humbling experience just to see the kind of outpouring of interest and support for me to pursue that endeavor. So I’m being prayerful about that and the main concern that my family supports it, making certain that my historic donor base support it and that the people support it.”
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors.
I’m your host Chris Cate and in this episode created by Salter Mitchell PR, I talk to Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings about the Orlando that he knew growing up and about some of the biggest issues facing the city today. We’ll also talk about the one year anniversary of the Pulse shooting, about Orlando’s relationship with Police, and about the chances that [00:00:30] the Sheriff will run for Mayor. We even talk about the Sheriff’s Harley Davidson rides with his wife, Congresswoman Val Demings. And you can hear it all right now.
Sheriff, thanks so much for being on the show. You were born in Orange County and now you’re one of the area’s most prominent leaders. Can you give me an idea of what Orlando was like for you growing up and what about the city has kept you there all these years?
Jerry Demings: Well when I was growing up, Orlando was a significantly different place than it is [00:01:00] today. It was a much smaller place, more of a small town atmosphere, because I was born in the late fifties. Which means it was pre-Disney era, and so I’ve seen the area grow tremendously post-Disney and all of the other theme parks that have developed here. It was somewhat of a rural character to it and today it’s [00:01:30] much more of an urban environment.
Chris Cate: What was it like … I feel like I have to ask this question, because I’m just so curious … when Disney came to town, what was that like? How old were you at that time and was that just the most amazing thing ever at the time?
Jerry Demings: It was. There was a lot of chatter about Disney. There was a lot of unknowns. But I recall many of the news reports from the day and there was promise of jobs [00:02:00] and when Disney came in, they paid well above the minimum wage. In fact, when I was in high school as a teenager, one of the very first jobs that I had was working at Walt Disney World in 1975, 1976. I started out working as a character at Disney and it was a great opportunity [00:02:30] to learn about the [inaudible 00:02:32] and also make some money for myself.
Chris Cate: Were you the same character? Was it a different character every time?
Jerry Demings: I did several different characters and I’m gonna tell you like I tell everybody, that remains un-named at this point. Because that would be like creating a lot of jest for myself, so I don’t talk about it. But [00:03:00] last year Disney celebrated, I guess it was the 45th anniversary I believe it was, and at the time I participated along with some others who had worked there during the early days and so … I’ve spent about I think five years working out there. On and off, both part and full time. While I was going through college and during the later [00:03:30] years of high school.
Chris Cate: So when did your interest in law enforcement begin?
Jerry Demings: My interest in law enforcement began really when I was watching some of those old television shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Mannix and One Out of Twelve and some of those shows back in the day. Miami Vice … so that was when I first had an interest, [00:04:00] but I went to college and I got a degree in Finance, so I was a Business major and shortly after graduating from college, from Florida State University, I got a job as an accountant. And while working as an accountant, I had an interest in working for the federal law enforcement authorities.
So I made application to the FBI and the Secret Service and I also [00:04:30] made an application to be a bank examiner. During that period of time, the country was going through a little bit of a downturn in the economy, and one of the recruiters for the FBI told me that while my application was pending, they liked my Business background, but they wanted three years of work experience, I had about a year, and they said “You know, it would be great if maybe you would even consider getting some law [00:05:00] enforcement in your background at the local level, because when we un-freeze the hiring, you should be a shoe-in at that point”.
At the same time, a friend of mine went to the Orlando Police Department who had gone to high school with me, and I was approached by an Orlando Police Recruiter by the name of Lexi Williams. And he really sold the agency to me and so I made application [00:05:30] in 1980 and ultimately was hired in 1981. So it’s been a 36 year career for me now.
Chris Cate: A great career too! You and your wife really have made an exceptional law enforcement team for Orlando. She of course now as Congresswoman Demings, but you both worked on the force together and both served as Orlando’s Police Chief. Can you share how the two of you met and how you’ve supported each other as your careers have advanced?
Jerry Demings: My wife and I both attended [00:06:00] and graduated from Florida State University. She graduated in 1979 with a degree in Criminology from Florida State, and I got my first degree in 1979, second degree in 1980. My degrees, as I said, were in business, so while we were on the same campus … we unofficially met there, I remember her from the campus, but we had different circles of friends [00:06:30] and so I didn’t really get to know her until she came on the Orlando Police Department in 1984.
By then, I was already a detective in the agency and had worked at point as a recruiter myself. So just prior to her getting hired, I was in recruiting and then I was promoted to a detective. So when she came on, not long after [00:07:00] that, I got to know her much better. So we got married in 1988 and so we’ve been married now for 29+ years. So that’s how we got to know each other.
Chris Cate: Do you have any stories you can share of the two of you working on the same case together or at least maybe helping each other out on a case assigned to one of you?
Jerry Demings: Well ironically, one of the very first cases that we worked on together involved [00:07:30] a teenager that was driving a go-kart on a sidewalk and he ran over another child and caused some serious injury to the other child, a much younger child. I was assigned the case to do investigative follow-up. My wife had been the original responding officer and took the initial police report. [00:08:00] And there was a little bit of a controversy associated with the fact that the first responding officer didn’t call out a detective to do follow-up investigation when the incident happened.
It was a little bit of a debate between my supervisor who was a Sargent at the time, a female Sargent, [00:08:30] and her supervisor who was another female Sargent, and the two of them didn’t necessarily see eye to eye. And the first time I really met her, she was upset, my wife was upset, because she thought that perhaps I was questioning her judgment [inaudible 00:08:49] and she was a rookie, mind you, police officer and she came up to my office and was questioning why we were questioning them. I was kind [00:09:00] of in the middle of it, because it was the two supervisors really, all I was doing was doing my job as an investigator, and she stormed away after we exchanged some words, and I said to myself “Wow, who is that?” You know? I’m the senior officer here.
But I came to know her and love her after that, so that was one of the cases that we worked on. Then there were many, because we both were hostage negotiators [00:09:30] for the Orlando Police Department. So whenever there was a barricaded gunman, a hostage situation, we were called in, and at one point, I became the team commander for the crisis negotiation team or the hostage negotiation team and my wife was a member of the team, so we worked on many crises together in that regard. Then of course my wife followed me in [00:10:00] several of the positions I held in the Police Department, so we had very similar ideological beliefs and etc.
So we spent our full career there and in 1998 when I was appointed police chief, she was already a captain in the agency, which was a high civil service rank and she remained captain during the four years [00:10:30] that I was police chief, from ’98 to ’02. Because of anti-nepotism rules, I could not hire or promote relatives. So as long as I stayed in the agency, she was no longer going to be able to advance and so we had gone up in rank through various promotions through the careers, so when I decided to retire from the agency in late 2002, I did so [00:11:00] with it in my mind that I had a new job offer that paid me more money than I made as police chief, and at the same time I was able to draw a nice pension from the city of Orlando, and it would create the opportunity for my wife to be able to move up in the agency.
So I moved out of the way, if I hadn’t of done that, she would have never been able to be police chief in Orlando.
Chris Cate: I read that you and your wife enjoy riding Harley’s together. Is [00:11:30] that true and is that something you try to do just to get away from the job and kind of take your mind off things? I would imagine being in the same line of work that you’d so often be talking about the same things at home and at work.
Jerry Demings: My wife and I own a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles. She rides a Harley Road King Classic and I ride a Harley Electric line, a Screaming Eagle brand engine, [00:12:00] and we ride together sometimes to get away. When we’re riding the motorcycles essentially we’re just free with outdoors and people cannot really call us or talk on the telephone, so it’s our way of getting away. Because she spends so much time in Washington, D.C. these days, we don’t get the opportunity to ride much. But whenever we have just [00:12:30] an hour or two, we may get on our motorcycles.
Chris Cate: What would you say is the biggest issue for law enforcement in Orlando right now?
Jerry Demings: The biggest issue for law enforcement in Orlando is centered around the tremendous growth that we have. We have permanent residency population growth, as well as visitor population growth. Last year in 2016, [00:13:00] we had over 68 million visitors that came here, which was number one in the nation, and it was the third consecutive year in a row we had over 60 million visitors, which I believe there’s been no other metropolitan area across the world that has had 60+ million three consecutive years in a row. So we have to police, not only for the increase in permanent [00:13:30] population, but also in visitor population. So effectively that means that our service population is growing and that creates a bit of a challenge for us to keep track of all of that.
Chris Cate: How do you … something out of your hands like that … how do you make sure you’re keeping up with the increase in population?
Jerry Demings: Well I have planners that’s on staff. We try to work very closely with the board of county [00:14:00] commission with budget and full time equivalence for our agency. And it’s incumbent upon me to go to the board and request increases in personnel and so we recently, last week, a week ago, we were successful in getting substantial pay increases and increases in the number of deputy sheriffs by agency to keep track of the growth and allow us to be [00:14:30] more proactive in our policing than reactive.
Chris Cate: This conversation happens to be taking place on June 12th, exactly one year after the Pulse shooting. The deadliest terror attack in America since 9/11. What about that night still stick with you?
Jerry Demings: Well it was an extraordinary night and set of events. First, I was awakened just after 2AM, after having only [00:15:00] been in bed for about 45 minutes. So I wasn’t very asleep when they called and it was startling to hear from the very onset that we were talking about a significant number of people who had been shot and killed by, what was believed to be a lone gunman. So that was first. Number two, when I arrived at the scene just before 3AM in the morning, I [00:15:30] encountered a deputy sheriff and police Sargent who were on the periphery and from the beginning when I looked into their eyes, I could tell that they were significantly disturbed by what had occurred. And the Orlando police Sargent had been inside the crisis site, and he had a look in his eyes as if he had seen a ghost. It had shaken him and had [00:16:00] an emotional impact on him.
He was a person that I knew in fact, I hired him probably 18 years or so before when I was the chief of police for Orlando and so from the very beginning I knew this was something very, very different from what we had ever dealt with before.
Chris Cate: And an attack can happen anywhere at any time, so how do you try and prevent something like the Pulse shooting from happening again? [00:16:30] Do you feel like you learned a lot from that incident?
Jerry Demings: We earned an awful lot from the event. In terms of our ability to prevent an attack, it is directly correlated to our ability to act upon intelligence information that we receive from numerous sources. So we have to work with federal, state, and local authorities to identify individuals [00:17:00] who have extremism type views, who have been self-radicalized or radicalized in other ways, who intend to harm America. So our analytical capability is key to preventing an attack from occurring.
Chris Cate: The police and all the law enforcement were rightfully given a lot of credit for their quick action [00:17:30] the night of the Pulse shooting, but unfortunately when it comes to other cases, not just here in Florida but nationally, it seems like there has been more public criticism of law enforcement in the last few years than the good news stories that police deserve. How do you respond to protesters that claim police are prejudice or too violent or just unfair at times? How do you keep that peaceful balance?
Jerry Demings: What we cannot do is ignore the perceptions of people who [00:18:00] are critical of law enforcement. Now some of that criticism is earned by the sins of a few in our profession, but when I look globally, the majority of law enforcement officers are very compassionate people who care about the citizens, who are willing to put their lives on the line each day to protect our citizens. So I’m always humbled [00:18:30] by the experience of seeing people who compliment law enforcement officers, who do various random acts of kindness expressing their appreciation for what we do on a day-to-day basis. I can honestly tell you that since the Pulse nightclub massacre, we have enjoyed I believe an improvement [00:19:00] in the overall perception of citizen/police contacts and every one of my deputy sheriffs and I have over 1500 deputy sheriffs, have experience a random act of kindness in which a citizen has paid for a meal, sometimes unknown who pays for the meal, but when we are sitting in a restaurant and we try to pay for our meal, [00:19:30] the cashier or the waitperson says “I’m sorry but somebody’s already paid for it and they told me not to tell you who did it”.
So I have a renewed faith and confidence in that the overwhelming majority of citizens do appreciate what we do.
Chris Cate: Yeah, a really love hearing those stories. Because of your strong leadership and your support from the community, I know a lot of people are also encouraging [00:20:00] you to run for Orlando County Mayor. If you were in that position, or you were just given bias to whoever was in that position, what would you say is the biggest area that needs to be improved upon at the county level?
Jerry Demings: Public safety is I think the primary and fundamental purpose of government. It is to protect the people. So I think that has to be central to the function of [00:20:30] a mayor, whether that’s a city or a county mayor. Secondarily I believe that it is important for the mayor and the elected county commissioners, to manage growth effectively and provide for the public services at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers. So we constantly should be looking and evaluating [00:21:00] the way we do business to see if we can eliminate inefficiency in government. Lastly, I believe that government has a responsibility to leverage its resources with the private sector to make our communities a better place and to overall improve the quality of life for our citizens.
So [00:21:30] yes, I have had a number of people who have allotted me to consider running for the Orange County Mayor’s position. The current county mayor is term limited and in late 2018, she will have to come out of office. So probably about 95% sure at this point that I’m going to seek that office, while continuing [00:22:00] to be sheriff here in Orange County. It’s a humbling experience just to see the kind of outpouring of interest and support for me to pursue that endeavor. So I’m being prayerful about that and the main concern that my family supports it, making certain that my historic donor base support it and that the people support it. So here [00:22:30] soon I’ll make a final decision and make an announcement one way or another about what we will be doing.
Chris Cate: Great, well I’ll definitely be listening for that.
I have four last questions to ask every guest. The first question is, who is a Florida leader that you admire. It can be someone from Florida history or someone still active in their work, but who’s a Florida leader that you admire?
Jerry Demings: One of the Florida leaders that I admire is [00:23:00] former governor Lawton Chiles. I admired Governor Chiles because he walked amongst the people. With a sense of humility. And as a servant leader myself, I try to walk amongst the people and not put myself on pedestals to where the people cannot have access to [00:23:30] me directly. So Governor Chiles is I think a wonderful example of what a public servant should be.
Chris Cate: What Florida person, place, or thing do you think deserves more attention than what it’s getting right now?
Jerry Demings: Well, I believe that as it relates to immigration reform, it is not getting the type of attention in Washington [00:24:00] that it deserves and maybe even within the state of Florida. We have a nation that was built from the labor of immigrants. The majority of the people that built this great nation came from far away lands and some of them came, I like to say, on cruise ships. They came freely and others came on slave ships. But we have a rich history of the nation [00:24:30] and sometimes I believe that we forget how we became the United States of America and what that really means. So I believe that here in Florida, because of our diverse cultures, our diverse economy, we still have a significant agricultural business, and I know that because we grow things, we [00:25:00] could not get all of the produce and crops to market if we did not depend somewhat on immigrants. We have lawful immigrants here that are working in our agricultural businesses and then of course we have undocumented persons who are also contributing to our economy, and I believe that we have got to do a better job as a nation of people and [00:25:30] as Floridians, to address immigration reform.
Chris Cate: That’s great. What is your favorite Florida location to visit? It can be a city, restaurant, beach, whatever you like, but what’s a favorite Florida place for you to go? Somewhere you ride Harley’s with your wife. Where is a great place for you to go.
Jerry Demings: Well we have such excellent places here in Florida. One of my favorite places to [00:26:00] visit is really down in the Palm Beach area, but then there are places outside of the Jacksonville area, that has these very serene beaches and areas where you can just go and relax and get away from the hustle and the bustle of an urban environment. But I gotta tell ya, I do like central [00:26:30] Florida. Not just because it’s home, but because of the multitude of things that you can see and do. The beaches are not far away. I like the family values that it represents. So my entire family is here from my 95 year old parents, who have been married this August will make 73 years they’ve been married, right down to [00:27:00] my youngest grandchild, who’s soon to be 2 years old. This is where my entire family lives and so there’s no substitute for family. So this is where I’ve chosen to live and to raise a family and most of my family has chosen to remain. And they have done so because of the opportunities that they have to get a good education, to get decent jobs.
[00:27:30] We have the second largest University in the nation here, the University of Central Florida, and that creates all types of academic, educational, and philanthropic opportunities for our residents here.
Chris Cate: All right last question. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team and if so, who’s that team?
Jerry Demings: Well the Orlando Magic. [00:28:00] National basketball is my number one sport. I played basketball as a kid and I played football also, but I really like the NBA. So the Magic is my favorite Florida team and then secondly I like the football. I like even, we have professional soccer here in our [00:28:30] area. I also played soccer for a couple of years at high school and soccer during the 70’s was a relatively new sport to Florida high school athletics. So today to see professional major league soccer here in the area, it’s just fantastic.
Chris Cate: Great, well thank you for sharing that. Thank you for your service and [00:29:00] thank you so much for being on the show.
Jerry Demings: Thank you for inviting me. Hopefully this has been somewhat informative and allowed people to get to know me a little better.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app. Like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at Salter Mitchell PR for making this podcast [00:29:30] possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams.
Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at FluentinFloridian.com. Have a great day.