‘She believed in helping people:’ Remembering Master Sgt. Debra Clayton
The legacy of Master Sgt. Debra Clayton is one of compassion, hope, and inspiration.
“She was a police officer, but she was a community activist. She believed in helping people and her hand was always out to help you,” said Jack Williams, one of Clayton’s closest friends.
Clayton, 42, died Monday morning, shot and killed outside a Walmart by a suspect on the run. She was one of two officers Orlando lost that day. A few hours later, Norman Lewis, a deputy first class with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, was killed in an vehicle accident while searching for Clayton’s assailant.
Clayton grew up in Orlando. She went on to the University of Central Florida and received a master’s degree. She is being remembered for her service to the community, intelligence and passion to bring people together.
She had worked for the police department for 17 years.
At a vigil just two days after Clayton’s death, hundreds lit candles, sang, wept and paid respect to a woman they knew as a living hero.
“She was a good-hearted person, and she always wanted what was best for anybody,” said a tearful Ashley Thomas, Clayton’s sister.
Johnny, the 21-year-old son of Clayton, had a message about his mother: “She was the prime example, everything she worked for, she died for.”
The past several years were troubling for Clayton. Tensions between the black community and police in cities across the country inspired her to speak directly to Orlando neighborhoods, hoping to mend the divide.
“The police are here to help you. We are not here to hurt you; we are here to help you,” she told dozens of residents this past summer at an Orlando Police Department event.
At a wreath-laying ceremony for Clayton, police Chief John Mina talked emotionally about her commitment to unite Orlando.
“Great, great police officer. Great leader in our agency, really led by example with the things she did in our community,” Mina said.
So much of Clayton’s legacy is of service. In 2015, she helped chaperone two busloads of Orlando-area youngsters who went to Washington as part of the anti-violence Million Youth Peace March.
The past several years, she also helped with a “Stop the Violence” rally, an annual vigil that commemorates the people in Orlando and Orange County who have died in the past year from gun violence.
Williams’ tears ran heavy as he spoke of his friend’s smile and kindness.
“Just thinking about her. I’m going to miss her, I’m going to miss her.”
The funeral for Clayton is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church in Orlando.
By Robert Ray and Nick Valencia