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Interim Police Chief Cerelyn ‘C.J.’ Davis: ‘There’s a lot of work that needs to be done’

With her reappointment in doubt, Mayor Paul Young opted to bypass a second Memphis City Council vote and appoint current Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis as the city’s interim top cop on Tuesday, January 24.

Interim appointments for department heads do not require a council vote.

“Chief Davis will serve as the chief of the Memphis Police Department on an interim basis until such time that we bring it back to make it a permanent appointment,” said Young.

The job reclassification was done in consultation with Council Chairman JB Smiley Jr. A final decision was made during the executive session. 

“I had a conversation with Mayor Young. I did not know what was going to happen today. I don’t think the mayor understood what was going to happen today either. But we had a very open and transparent conversation,” said Smiley.

Davis is one of several holdovers from the Strickland administration up for reappointment — although likely the most contentious. 

Her two-year tenure has been haunted by the killing of Tyre Nichols by members of an undercover MPD Scorpion Unit.  The unarmed 23-year-old was beaten to death by several officers after fleeing an aggressive stop. A slate of council-passed reforms to curb over-policing followed, including a data dashboard to track police interactions with motorists.

It has also been underscored by a historic crime rate, punctuated by violent crimes and even more specifically, homicides.

“This is not about any particular person…What people care about is, are we saving lives? Are we moving Memphis in the right direction? I think Mayor Young understands that. He understands that this is not a dictatorship. It’s a partnership that puts people before any decisions. We have to figure out a way for us to move forward,” said Smiley.

Both Young and Smiley have had several private conversations in the runup. The former is hoping to “wipe the slate clean” from the previous administration. Reappointments, like Davis, will also receive a clean slate with their new boss.

“I made the decision that I felt like Chief Davis is the right person at the right time. My commitment has not wavered. But I also understand that there are doubts. I understand and respect that. Chief Davis understands and respects that. We had a very candid conversation about this,” said Young.

The agreement also avoids a potential failed second vote. During the previous meeting on Jan. 9, several council members expressed doubt in her leadership. 

During that meeting, Smiley also confronted Davis with a letter he received from former Mayor Jim Strickland on Dec. 29. It informed the council that, on his orders, the ordinances passed after Nichols’ death were never enforced by Davis. She denied the letter’s assertions.

Instead, Davis blamed many of the department’s problems on a lack of buy-in from some officers. Some are having difficulty adapting to a new culture and related policies. She also blamed sexism, as well as the ambitions of MPD underlings for a lack of internal support. Some members of the council agreed. Davis is the department’s first Black female leader.

Nevertheless, the first vote fell short 6-7.

“I believe my lens was jaded by the way this body was treated by the previous administration,” said Smiley. “But that is no fault to Mayor Young. It’s not necessarily the fault of Chief C.J. Davis.”

Like the previous meeting, Davis was met with a full house of supporters and opponents – including numerous MPD officers and protesters – of her reappointment.

Davis began her career with the Atlanta Police Department. There, she commanded the now-disbanded Red Dog Unit. It had a mission similar to the MPD’s Scorpion Unit. In 2016, she was hired as the Durham, N.C. chief of police. She was sworn in as MPD chief in 2021.

“I love this community and I’ve served two-and-a-half years, from my heart, to this community and I plan to continue to do that. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but this community is willing to help us get the work done…I’m overwhelmed,” Davis said to reporters outside city hall.

Davis is one of many reappointments seeking to extend their jobs with the city. During the council’s personnel committee meeting, Young expressed frustration with the pace of the appointment process.

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