Long before she would become Orlando’s first female Chief of Police, Val Butler Demings learned from her parents about the American Dream. They didn’t have much: two parents and seven children in a small wood-framed house in Jacksonville.
Her mother Elouise Butler worked as a maid; her father James as a janitor, landscaper, and orange picker — as many jobs as it took to get by. “Work hard and play by the rules,”” they taught her. “”Have faith.”” “”Treat others as you want to be treated.” “Never tire of doing good.” In America, these were the building blocks of a successful life.
She took her first job at 14 as a dishwasher. Worked hard in school. Became the first in her family to go to college, working at a fast food restaurant to pay her way.
She became a social worker, working to protect children in broken homes. Then, dismayed at a system that was leaving too many families behind, she signed up to become a police officer — an officer with a social worker’s heart.
It was a tough path, and tougher still in the 80s for a woman and Black American in a profession that had few of either. But no obstacle had ever deterred the daughter of James and Elouise. She graduated from the police academy with citations for excellence, and quickly earned a reputation as a bold, creative cop willing to take on conventional thinking and the toughest parts of the city.
Chief Demings served 27 years and at every rank level in the department. She commanded the Special Operations division and handled the department’s highest-profile tasks. She coordinated the response of the Airport Division on 9/11. And in 2007, she made history when she was appointed to serve as the city’s first female Chief of Police.
The eyes of the city were on her. The financial crisis was squeezing budgets. But by taking the tough fights head-on, she did more with less, kept officers on the street, and crushed violent crime, reducing it by 40%.