Debra Clayton: A Hero Lost

Community Mourns Orlando Police Officer Lt. Debra Clayton

by Karen V. Contino

Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton leaves a legacy of bravery, community activism and a smile that could transcend barriers.

“She was a role model for so many and a mother figure to some of the young girls, who would turn to Debra for advice,” said Orlando Police Chief John Mina at Clayton’s funeral service, where he posthumously promoted her from the rank of master sergeant to lieutenant. “And who wouldn’t be put at ease when faced with Debra’s infectious smile? I’ve heard from many kids this week that when Debra smiled, no matter what you were feeling about law enforcement, you had to smile back. Debra knew that something as simple as a smile could lead to a real connection, and I’ve never known anyone better at building those bonds.”

Orange County Public Schools recognizes its former student, the late Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Clayton, 42, who died Jan. 9, 2017, when she was shot and killed outside a Walmart by a suspect on the run, proudly served the Orlando Police Department for more than 17 years. She is survived by her husband of one year, Seth Clayton; her adult son, Johnny Brinson; her parents, Rudolph Thomas Sr. and Yvette Shakelford; a sister and brother for whom she was caregiver, Ashley Thomas and Rudolph Thomas Jr.; siblings Nikkie Anita Huey Young, Rayshaw Shackelford and Alton Huey; an aunt and uncle, Charlotte and Cordell Woods; and many other loving family members and friends.

“My sister was a beautiful person inside and out,” Ashley said at a recent candlelight vigil. “She would give you the shirt off her back.”

Born and raised in Central Florida, Clayton was a 1993 graduate of Dr. Phillips High School, where she also had served as a school resource officer.

“Debra would just light up a room with her smile,” said JuaNita Reed, Clayton’s former guidance counselor. “When we would have a counseling session, Debra would always express her love for working in the community. At first she told me that she would like to become a guidance counselor. Then one day she said, ‘I think I want to go into law enforcement.’ That is exactly what she did.”

“She decided, no, I want to be a police officer, because she felt like she would do more in the community,” said DPHS Principal Secretary Deloris Patterson. “She could reach more children by being out in the community.

“Debra was involved in countless community activities and had a passion for working with and investing in the youth. Debra worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement.”

“She was an active participant in all of our youth mentoring programs,” Mina said. “Operation Positive Direction [Youth Mentoring Program], Parramore Kidz Zone, you name it. She was a member of our Dueling Dragons of Orlando Dragon Boat Team, a very unlikely partnership between inner city teens and Orlando police officers. Debra knew the importance of this program, where barriers and walls were broken down and where officers and kids used teamwork to achieve a common goal.

“But the magic behind these initiatives are the relationships and bonds that are forged over time. Debra loved those programs because they helped humanize police officers.”

Clayton also organized multiple “Stop the Violence” rallies, was an active member of the Central Florida National Organization of Black Law Executives (NOBLE), and was a humble recipient of numerous awards and commendations. In addition, Clayton authored Bridging the Gap Between Law Enforcement and the Community.

“The police are here to help you,” Clayton told dozens of residents at an Orlando Police Department summer event. “We are not here to hurt you; we are here to help you.”

The late Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton (second from right) leaves behind a legacy of service to the community and a continuous effort to show residents that law enforcement officers are here to help.

She will also be remembered for her fortitude in defending the community she worked so hard to unite.

“Know that she never thought [her death] would happen at that time,” Patterson said. “But she was willing to do what was necessary to protect the community. That was just Debra. I know there’s a place greater for her. Her crown is waiting for her.”

During a candlelight vigil, just two days and only a few feet from where Clayton lost her life, Brinson recalled his heroic mother’s bravery.

“She lived for it, and she died for it,” he said. “She was the prime example, everything she worked for, she died for.”

DPHS social studies instructor and former OPD Officer James Coney said he hopes to continue to make a difference in Clayton’s honor.

“Her life was as genuine as her smile,” he said, recalling his former student. “The teacher should inspire the student. There is no evidence that it happened. But I know her story will inspire me now. There is still a race to run, young black males to teach, and a community to change. With God’s help, I will continue to do that. Thank you Lt. Debra Clayton.” 💓

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