Val Butler was a rookie patrol cop working on the ground floor of the Orlando Police Department. Jerry Demings worked as a detective on the second floor. One day, after hearing through the grapevine that he was unhappy with a patrol report she had written, she walked upstairs to his office and gave him a piece of her mind.
"She was a rookie cop. A rookie!" Jerry Demings said with disbelief almost a quarter of a century later. "I thought, 'Who on Earth is this person?'"
"I think that's when he fell in love with me," she said.
The romantic sparks flew, but they waited a bit before going on their first date. Marriage followed several years after that.
Married for 20 years
Now, Val Demings, 51, is Orlando's police chief, and Jerry Demings, 49, was sworn in earlier this month as sheriff of surrounding Orange County in a rare instance of a married couple leading two law enforcement agencies in neighboring jurisdictions. They have been married for 20 years.
"This is something that is unique," said Fred Wilson, director of operations for the National Sheriffs' Association in Alexandria, Va. "It may very well be a first."
Not everyone thinks it's a good idea to have the heads of the two largest local law enforcement agencies in the Orlando area married to each other. What about the potential for conflict of interest and lack of independence? Those issues were raised by Jerry Demings' Republican opponent during the campaign for sheriff last fall, although John Tegg refused to comment for this story.
Jerry Demings, who ran as a Democrat, will earn $159,000 a year as sheriff. His wife was appointed to the $139,000-a-year job a year ago by Democratic Mayor Buddy Dyer.
Family ties among local law enforcement heads aren't unheard of in the Orlando area. Jerry Demings' predecessor, former Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, is the son of a former police chief of Winter Park, an Orlando suburb, and his brother is the former police chief of Lake Mary, another suburb. But a married couple is a first for this theme park mecca, where the perception of crime is taken as seriously as actual crime given the economy's reliance on tourism.
"In an optimal world, you probably would want to have cooperating agencies operate fully at arm's length because they represent different constituencies' interests," said Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee in Orlando. "They're both very fine law enforcement officers with good reputations, so I don't think it's a big deal."
'It's a unique situation'
The mayor saw no potential conflict of interest with his chief of Orlando's 1,000-employee police force married to the Orange County sheriff, who oversees 2,400 workers.
"Certainly, it's a unique situation," Dyer said in an e-mail. "But nowhere is it written that a married couple cannot hold leadership positions in law enforcement at different agencies in the same geographic area."
The Demings dismiss any concerns.
Past behavior best indicator
She said their past behavior is the best indicator of how they will operate. She worked for her husband as a high-ranking captain when he served as Orlando police chief from 1999 to 2002.
"No one can point to any instance when there was ever a conflict of interest ... when we abused our authority in the agency," she said. "If we could exist within the same agency as husband and wife, certainly we can exist in two separate and distinct agencies as heads of those agencies."
With a stylish haircut and broad smile, she cuts a glamorous if no-nonsense figure. Her mustached husband has a mirthful smile that suggests politician more than police officer.
They have the somewhat comic routine of many longtime couples. They laugh at each other's jokes, suggest that the other one tell a particular story and interrupt each other to set the record straight if they disagree with the way the story is going. To relax, they ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles together.
"She has followed me in most of my jobs," he said.
The same career path
While it's meant as a joke, the statement isn't off target since the two have tread the same career paths. Both came from large families of modest means and lots of siblings. One of his brothers died young from the ravages of heroin addiction, a tragedy that gave the sheriff firsthand knowledge of the impact of drug abuse on families.
They both studied at Florida State University in Tallahassee at the same time, although they didn't know each other. She majored in criminology, he studied finance. He joined the Orlando police force in 1981, while she worked as a social worker before moving to the city to attend the Orlando Police Academy in 1983.
They shared the same social circle after their initial, somewhat stormy introduction at the police department, where they were ground-breakers. He was the city's first African-American police chief and became Orange County's first black sheriff. She was the city's second African-American police chief and the first woman to lead the agency.
He is taking over the sheriff's office at a time when the Orlando area has broken its all-time murder record. As of the weekend before Christmas, Orange County — which has over 1 million residents — had 123 murders in a tally that includes the county, unincorporated areas, Orlando and nine other cities.
Given the demands of their jobs, they now have to schedule their date nights.
"It may be shocking to a lot of people but we enjoy talking about (work)," she said. "We brainstorm, look at things from different perspectives, bouncing things off each other and trying to come up with the best plan for the community."