Acting DHS secretary claims no 'systemic racism problem' in law enforcement, drawing rebuke from potential VP candidate Demings

In response to Wolf, Rep. Val Demings said, "We have a lot of work to do."

June 7, 2020, 10:33 AM

As protests of police brutality continue across the country in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody, the acting secretary of Homeland Security pushed back against the notion that incidents like Floyd's killing are the manifestation of systemic racism within law enforcement agencies -- a position that put him at odds with a member of Joe Biden's vice presidential shortlist.

"I do not think that we have a systemic racism problem with law enforcement officers across this country," Chad Wolf said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

"Do I acknowledge that there are some law enforcement officers that abuse their job? Yes. And again, we need to hold those accountable," Wolf told "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz, before claiming that "painting law enforcement with a broad brush of systemic racism is really a disservice" to the upstanding members of the law enforcement community.

The comments, which strike at the core argument behind the demonstrations that have swept throughout the nation in the past two weeks, were quickly criticized by Rep. Val Demings in a subsequent "This Week" interview.

"Look, if we're going to solve some of America's toughest problems we've got to be painfully honest about what those problems are," Demings, D-Fla., said. "And we know that we have been fighting systemic racism in this country for 400 years."

"We know that it has ... reared its ugly head in law enforcement agencies, and housing, and education, and many other places," she continued. "And so while I heard what the secretary said, we have a lot of work to do, and systemic racism is always the ghost in the room."

Demings has been thrust into the national spotlight in recent weeks as she has come under consideration as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. And as the former chief of the Orlando Police Department, she has been outspoken on the topic of law enforcement reform, a topic she was questioned about Sunday.

"What we have to do as a nation is hold police accountable, provide the necessary oversight to do that, look at training standards, look at use-of-force policies, look at who we are hiring, look at diversity within those agencies, and come together and create legislation that will support initiatives like that," Demings said, adding that she would instruct the thousands of agencies across the United States to move forward on such evaluations immediately, rather than wait for the federal government to implement them.

In reflecting upon her tenure leading the Orlando force, Demings discussed three issues she encountered that led to police misconduct.

"Either bad mind: you have a person who should not be a law enforcement officer in the first place. You have a bad heart: maybe you have a problem with racism. Or bad policy," she said, explaining that better hiring practices combined with improved training could lead to increased "dignity and respect" between officers, victims, witnesses and suspects.

PHOTO: House Democratic impeachment managers Rep. Sylvia Garcia, second from left, and Rep. Val Demmings, third from left, arrive on the Senate side of Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3, 2020, for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
House Democratic impeachment managers Rep. Sylvia Garcia, second from left, and Rep. Val Demmings, third from left, arrive on the Senate side of Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3, 2020, for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Susan Walsh/AP, File

During Wolf's interview, many of the acting secretary's criticisms were directed toward protesters and local governments, which he contended did not do enough to quell some of the initially violent demonstrations, including harsh words for the nation's capital.

"What we saw over the past week is really a city out of control," Wolf said of the nation's capital, which became one of the focal points of scrutiny Monday after peaceful protesters were forced out of a park across from the White House ahead of President Donald Trump's visit to pose for photographs in front of a church.

Wolf argued Sunday that the decreasing incidences of violence and looting were a result of the actions taken by the federal government to rein-in protesters, despite widespread condemnation of the rhetoric emerging from Trump and others within the administration.

"The president talked repeatedly about 'dominating' the streets, bringing in heavily armed military, vicious dogs, if the police can't get the job done. The secretary of defense called American streets a 'battlespace' -- he walked that back later," Raddatz said, before asking the acting DHS secretary, "What kind of message do those words send to your officers when they come face-to-face with their fellow Americans demonstrating on the street?"

"What we've done and what the president has been very clear on is we're not going to let (violence) stand," Wolf said. "We're going to bring law and order back to the streets of D.C. and any other metropolitan area."

PHOTO: Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is interviewed by ABC News.
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is interviewed by ABC News.
ABC News

The acting secretary noted that the government wanted to provide a peaceful environment for protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights, but returned to a hard-line stance regarding destructive activities.

"At the end of the day, this is about law and order," he continued. "This is a country built on law and order, and we're going to address those protesters that are destroying businesses, that are targeting law enforcement officers. We can't have that go on day after day."

After Wolf's interview on "This Week" aired, the president announced on Twitter that he had ordered the National Guard to withdraw from Washington, "now that everything is under control."

As for the underlying issues that led to the worldwide demonstrations, while Wolf did not support the idea of a "systemic racism problem," he expressed that "the outrage that Americans are feeling today about the death of George Floyd is very real" and noted that Trump has been vocal in his position that those involved be brought to justice. He also expressed support for addressing abuses of police power and investigating some of the clashes between law enforcement and protesters in which it appears excessive force is being used.

"If evidence shows that they did not do their job correctly -- did not do the way they were trained to do -- we need to hold them accountable," he said, while also calling attention to the issues police have had to deal with, such as arson and vandalism.

"While we're focusing on some of the police, we also need to focus on what has occurred over the last week in cities across America. Burning churches. Defacing monuments," Wolf said. "We cannot let that go on, and so I think, as we talk about what the police is doing, we also need to talk about what they're up against every day as well."