Interview with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, candidate for re-election for the post
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: August 2, 2012
WONO: Sheriff Demings, you have repeatedly said you are running on your record. Could you tell us some of the high-lights of your nearly fours years as Orange County Sheriff? Also, what are some of the low-lights?
Jerry Demings: We’ve had a lot of good things happen in the Orange County Sheriff’s office in the past four years. Of course, the people of Orange County have elected me to reduce crime in the community and we worked very diligently with the entire community to do that. In the first full three years that I have been sheriff, overall crime in Orange County declined by 23.2 percent and violent crime has declined by 20.2 percent. Now, that outpaces the national and state average and in fact the average of most of the sheriffs’ offices in the state of Florida, concerning the large sheriffs’ offices, with one-thousand or more employees.
The other thing is, this agency has been reaccredited both at the national and the state level and has received the highest reaccreditation award ever given to a law enforcement agency of our size. So, that is good news and it reassures me and the public that the way we operate is consistent with the standards of various procedures, for the various law enforcement agencies across the nation. There are some 21,000 of them in our nation. So we are doing it as well as anyone else, during this period of time.
I also promised the taxpayers of Orange County that we would increase the availability of deputies in the neighborhoods and our business districts. Today, we have more deputy sheriffs assigned to first response duty than I had when we took over, but we still have essentially the same numbers of deputies. I did this by realigning the agency and reassigned deputies who were doing administrative type duties, to now doing patrol-type duties. We assigned an additional ten deputies out into the Pine Hills area and created a unit called the Problem-Oriented Policing Unit (P.O.P Unit) that works in partnership with the community on proactive, preventive type of approaches in that area. We have also deployed a P.O.P Unit in East Orange County. They are on preventative patrol so they are not call-driven. They are there to act proactively with the homeowners’ associations, the business groups etc., to prevent crime from occurring. Also, we assigned ten additional deputies to the tourism corridor in the International Drive area and we call that unit Tourist Oriented Policing Sectors (T.O.P.S ).
The other thing we have done is increase our visibility by opening sub-stations and in appropriate places, mini sub-stations. In Pine Hills we did something we had not done before. We deployed a mobile sub-station – a trailer-type in the area of Pine Hills and Silver Star Road – again to give us increased visibility. We also opened up a store front-type sub-station in the Pine Hills area of Hiawassee and Silver Star Road and a new sub-station in East Orange County – the first green sub-station opened by the county. Also, during this time period, we opened one in the area of Lake Underhill and Rouse Road, and in partnership with Sea World we opened a new sub-station in the tourist corridor. So we have done many things during this past three-and-a half years.
WONO: Would all of this be part-and-parcel of your community policing effort?
Jerry Demings: Absolutely. It is all part of the community policing effort. We also rolled out a new policing initiative that we call Offering Children Successful Outcomes. It is a mentorship program and the acronym is the OCSO program. We created it through a partnership with Florida Juvenile Justice. We received a grant and there is an organization called The Power of Promise, a private organization, and the program is created to reduce the disproportionate number of minority contacts in the juvenile justice system within Orange County’s high-risk zip code areas. We have focused primarily on students attending Meadowbrook Middle School, Robinswood Middle School, Evans High School, and Wekiva High School, near the Pine Hills area and the program has been very successful. We have awarded some scholarships to students who were participating in the program. We also created a new program in partnership with the Orange County Public Schools, to replace what was formerly known as the DARE Program, taught in elementary schools. We no longer teach the DARE Program, we teach a program created and copy-written in partnership with OCPS called M.A.G.I.C. and it stands for Mentoring, Advising, Guiding and Instructing Children. So, we now teach M.A.G.I.C. in the unincorporated areas of Orange County schools – to elementary age school children and that program focuses on teaching young people the dangers of drugs, substance abuse, including alcohol, as well as an anti-bullying curriculum, which is of much interest to people around the nation. The program is taught throughout the school year, but during the summertime we take a break. So these are all new initiatives that we have started since I have been sheriff.
WONO: Major gains have been made in reducing crime, but I think recently we are seeing an uptick in violent crimes, particularly homicides. How is this explained?
Jerry Demings: Overall, year-to-date compared to last year violent crime in Orange County is still down by about 7 percent. However, that does not mean that I am trying to discount some of the horrific incidents that we have seen in our community in recent weeks. Those things, unfortunately, come when you are growing into a big city – you begin to have all of the challenges that a big city would have. Crime and delinquency are a few of those challenges that any major metropolitan area is going to experience; we are not an island onto ourselves in that regard. We are seeing these things, but again, the Sheriff’s office is working proactively to deal with many of them and being very successful in bringing to justice whom we believe are the perpetrators of most of the homicides. We still have a few who haven’t been arrested, but our detectives are working many hours to bring them to justice, especially the most recent case of the young 15-year-old girl who got caught in the crossfire of gun shots. So, we are addressing all of those things as we look forward.
WONO: Sheriff, what kind of programs are in placed aimed particularly at juveniles? How do you see the role of prevention strategy in helping to curb delinquent behavior?
Jerry Demings: Well we are going to have to continue to work to teach gang resistance and participation in our community. We do still teach what we call the GREAT program – the Gang Resistance, Education and Training Program – to middle and high school students in unincorporated Orange County. We are one of the few law enforcement agencies in the region that has dedicated law enforcement officers assigned to work specifically to combat gang activity. So, we have a Gang Unit here. We also have what we call a Juvenile Arrest and Monitoring Unit which monitors juveniles identified as being delinquent, in other words, involved in criminal behavior. However, we still need to continue providing positive alternatives for young people, so that they do not get involved in some of the delinquent criminal activity that is occurring. We should be supporting programs like those that are being offered by Central Florida Boys Scouts of America, YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. All of them have programs in Orange County. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office operates a program called the Orange County Police Athletic League or P.A.L. which is different from the Central Florida Police Athletic League.
I believe that the Central Florida Police Athletic League is nearly defunct. Our Orange County P.A.L. program is alive and well.
Specifically, on the issue of juvenile crime, the data that I’ve seen from the Department of Juvenile Justice indicates that juvenile crime is on the decline. Now, as it relates to the Orange County Jail, every day there is a report that comes out and relatively speaking, there are about half the number of children incarcerated at the Orange County Jail today, as was incarcerated there in 2002. On an average basis, we average about 50-60 kids incarcerated in the Orange County Jail on any given day. That means those kids have been waived and they are not being prosecuted as children, but rather adults, because they have committed serious violations of the law such as homicide, murder, home invasions and robberies. Those young people do not go to juvenile detention when they are in the custody of the Juvenile Justice, instead they go to jail and that number has been cut in half, in the last ten years. So that is good news which we have to celebrate.
However, we have seen a bit of an uptick in the number of children who kill, the number of children who murder.
WONO: One of your opponents in the primary race has said that on a per capita basis, it is safer in New York than in Orange County and that he could lower crime quickly and dramatically by using basic and sophisticated techniques. Is this accurate and is there anything else that we should be doing here that is not being done?
Jerry Demings: There is little merit to what he is saying. I don’t know if he is looking at the per capita crime data, accurately. In 2010, Orange County had the lowest per capita crime rate than it has had since 1986. When you look at the UCR data you have to be careful. The City of Orlando had its own crime numbers and then there is Orange County, the unincorporated area, which has its own crime numbers. Then the County as a whole has numbers and crime in Orange County, as a whole, is a composite of all of the law enforcement agencies in the County and not just the Orange County Sheriff’s office. Each year that I have been sheriff, per capita crime in Orange County has declined.
WONO: Another campaign promise of yours was to be a good steward of taxpayers’ resources. Over the years, you have returned millions of dollars back to the coffers. Some of your critics have said that you are doing this to make yourself look good at the expense of employees who are doing more with less. How do you respond to that?
Jerry Demings:Well my critics don’t know what they are talking about. They’re not managers; they don’t run the Orange County Sheriff’s office. I want to be clear here. I am the chief law enforcement executive in Orange County. I am well experienced and well trained to do what I do. There is no substitute for that training or experience. When we look at my opponents, I don’t expect them to be out and accurately portraying what I have done; they are going to distort the truth and that’s all there is. That is just politics. But when you get right down to it, each year, managing our budget has been a challenge.
The County has reduced the budget and my strategy was to keep all of my employees working and not have to layoff anyone. We have been successful at that. When you look at all of the major counties in the state of Florida, every sheriff’s office in the large counties have had to lay off workers. They have either laid off officers, deputy sheriffs patrolling the streets, or they laid them off in their jails or other places in the operation. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is the only one that has not had to lay-off any workers. So, my strategy has worked because, when I saved money, the deal that I cut with the Board of County Commissioners is, the money that I would save in the succeeding budget would be taken into consideration when they set my budget and given back to me. This allows me to off-set the budget cuts that I certainly was going to have. My budget cuts have been less than what they would have been if I didn’t save money in the preceding year, for the succeeding year. So, it has been a great strategy. I have not had to lay-off personnel, crime is down, and I am responsible for being a good steward of the people’s money. Yes, I am a political conservative who has done a good job and there is no debating whether or not I returned the money. There is no question about it. Now, do I do it to look good? That’s silly. That is just plain silly. I do it because I am a good steward of the taxpayers’ money and do my job as a chief law enforcement executive of the County.
WONO: Sheriff, historically across the U.S., there has been fundamental mistrust and suspicion between minority communities – African-Americans and Hispanics – on the one hand and law enforcement on the other. As the first African-American sheriff of Orange County what has been your experience and how have you gone about bridging that gap
Jerry Demings: Certainly, I have been the first African-American sheriff in the history of Orange County and I am honored to be serving in that capacity. However, I’m not the sheriff for African-Americans, I’m the sheriff of everybody in Orange County. What I have tried to do since being sheriff is run a transparent operation. Before I took over I empaneled a transition team that was a diverse group of people, representing all walks of life. They were ethnically diverse, they were business persons, they were law enforcement professionals, educators, they were crime victims, and they were students – all part of my transition team. I took the recommendations they made coming through the door and I reorganized this agency with the input from the citizens of Orange County.
The other thing I have done to try and bridge the gap is, convene crime summits annually. At those summits we give the community a report card on how we have dealt with crime, and we also solicit from the community their assistance and responsibility in helping to combat crime and crime-related issues.
Also, I have held numerous cultural diversity events here at the Sheriff’s Office. We have opened our doors and celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month, Caribbean Heritage Month, African-American Heritage Month, and we even had a multi-cultural event where we invited the citizens of all the segments of our community to come in and see what we have done. We have hosted Safety Fairs – essentially open houses within our agency. I have sponsored Know Your Rights conferences and rallies in partnership with others in their community, especially those new minority communities who may speak other languages.
Lastly, the policing squads that we have deployed both on the east and west side and the tourist corridor, have all been done to help bridge the gap between the police and the community. I am very visible in this community. I volunteer to participate on numerous non-profit boards of directors. I’ve raised money for organizations including, the Boys Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, PALS etc., and I ask my staff to do the same as we try to bridge the gap and build positive relationships with all segments of our community. We have hosted the first Hispanic Seniors Citizens Police Academy; the first Chaplains Citizens Police Academy and the first Professional Security Providers Academy, since I have been sheriff.
So, we have done a host of things to bridge that gap and build relationships. I am very visible – I go on community shows and to faith-based communities and churches on a regular basis to talk to all segments of our community. We work with the various Chambers of Commerce, too. So, I believe it is unquestionable whether or not we’ve been visible and active in this community during the past nearly four years.
WONO: Sheriff is there anything you wanted to accomplish and you are disappointed that you were not able to do in your first term?
Jerry Demings: Rome wasn’t built in a day; it takes time. I’m not disappointed in the progress that we have made. I fully believe it takes time. I can see the progress and one of the reasons that I’m running for re-election is that, I believe more can be done. We can take this agency even further in terms of being one of the top most highly rated law enforcement agencies in the nation and we are doing that. So, I’m not disappointed at all in the progress we have made.
WONO: How is your campaign going?
Jerry Demings: My campaign is going fantastic. This time I have to be both the sheriff and campaign as well, and it creates a bit of a challenge for me. My wife, as you know is running for the United States Congress. But, we are a family that believes in giving back to the community.
I am getting significant support from all segments of the community. I have great corporate and individual support. If you evaluate the Campaign Finance Reports of the candidates in this race you will probably find out something pretty startling, at least from one of my opponents. He has a couple of very wealthy individuals who essentially are bankrolling his campaign. These wealthy individuals own multiple businesses and they are writing $500 checks in all of their businesses. That is paramount to a wealthy person buying the candidate. In my case, most of my donors are individuals, I do have corporate donors and if you look at my Campaign Financial Reports you will see that all of the major employers in this region are standing behind me in my reelection. I feel pretty good about that because, I am not being bought by any individual, or any particular wealthy individual. I am not being bought by anybody. We have out-raised my opponents. I will continue to work hard to raise funds and will do what I need to do to get reelected.
My wife and I are true public servants and we also have a son who is an Orange County Firefighter. So, we believe in public service, we give back to our community, and we will continue to do so.
WONO: Sheriff, thank you for your time.