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Despite shaky support for Police Chief ‘C.J’. Davis, Mayor Paul Young ‘firmly believes we have the right person for the job’

With blue-uniformed supporters and opponents in the background Tuesday (Jan. 9), Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, arguing her case for reappointment, fell short on 6-7 vote, during the Memphis City Council’s executive session.

The “test” vote came during a contentious discussion that included Mayor Paul Young, who took office Jan. 1, giving the city’s first female police chief a vote of confidence. The council is scheduled to take a binding yes-or-no vote on Davis’ reappointment at the next council meeting on Jan. 23.

“Make no mistake, all of our fates are riding on us getting this right,” Young said. “As I said in the beginning, I am going to be accountable to you all. If we’re not getting the results that we need and deserve, we’ll go another way.

“Right now, I firmly believe we have the right person and I stand behind her,” Young said.

Davis’ first two years have been haunted by the killing of unarmed motorist Tyre Nichols by MPD officers and a historic crime rate. She also has struggled to find acceptance from rank-and-file officers within the department.

With that backdrop, Davis faced a skeptical council. Among her biggest critics is its new chairman.

“It’s my opinion that Chief Davis had two-and-a-half years. I think that’s ample time to get it right. I just think that Memphis ultimately deserves smart and innovative policing practices that we have seen across this country,” said JB Smiley Jr.

Several of those innovations were passed into law last year – spurred by the fatal bludgeoning of Nichols on Jan. 7, 2023 and who died a year ago Wednesday (Jan. 10) – via council ordinances, including the creation of a data dashboard. This will include statistics on police interactions with citizens that result in a citation, arrest, or violence. In all, six ordinances were passed to reign in what department critics called MPD over-policing.

At the start of the council’s deliberations on Davis Tuesday, Smiley, who began his second term on the council Jan. 1, confronted Davis with a letter he received from former mayor Jim Strickland on Dec. 29, during the waning days of Strickland’s administration.

It informed the council that, on his orders, none of the ordinances were enforced by Davis.

“I never received the letter,” Davis replied.

Smiley also read from a recent Daily Memphian article featuring an interview with an unnamed MPD officer, whose claims, if true, would confirm the veracity of Strickland’s letter.

“There’s not been any directives handed down at all, whatsoever…It’s been business as usual,” Smiley quoted.

Davis denied the allegations. Instead, she blamed officers’ confusion over whether to follow state law and the ordinance.

A council member also pointed out that Davis related that officers were reluctant to record data, which could include information about motorists’ sexual orientation.

Davis responded, “Some of our officers are having problems. They are not used to discipline at the level our community, or the council expects. They’re not used to various policies and procedures that will take our department to a higher level. Change is uncomfortable for them.”

Still, with only one vote short of a simple majority, Davis does have her defenders.

Dismissing media reports, a returning member of the council blamed an unwillingness to accept new practices – and a Black female superior – for the alleged dissension in the ranks. He also accused members of the MPD of their own ambitions.

“I know a lot of them, they’d love to have your job. I wouldn’t, that’s a hard job,” said Edmund Ford Sr. “Clean house with some of them. Go on and let them retire. It’s time to get away from here. Bring in ones that really care; ones that have your back, not stab you in your back.”

Despite the newspaper article, and officer reluctance, Davis believes she can get officers to buy into her leadership and city ordinances.

“I know what is needed for this Police Department. I felt like I was brought here to make change and not just keep things the way they were,” said Davis.

After reminding Davis that her service revolver was stolen from her personal vehicle, freshman council member Jerri Green criticized her plan for a lack of vision.

This includes ignoring the need for a local crime lab for speedier investigative results. The MPD currently sends samples and other materials to Jackson, Tenn., for analysis.

“What we have continued to ask is for a vision. And you have provided us some bullet points about tracking repeat offenders or having more DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes in fourth grade.

“Frankly, it’s not enough. If you were to come to me and say, ‘I want to reopen that crime lab, I need this council’s support for budget because they are going to have to drive it back-and-forth to Jackson. Being able to have a ballistics lab…so I can connect it to a crime within 48 hours. That’s vision,” Green said.

Davis defended her approach, which she called “holistic.” This includes bringing key stakeholders – schools, churches, politicians, community activists, and businesses – to work with the MPD to address systemic problems.

So did Young.

“Are there things we are going to have to do to gain trust from officers and the community? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t make this recommendation if I didn’t think we can do it,” Young said.

Voting in favor of reappointing Davis were Rhonda Logan, new members Pearl Eva Walker, Yolanda Cooper-Sutton and Janika White, and Michalyn Easter-Thomas, and Ford.

Voting against were J. Ford Canale, Jana Swearengen-Washington, Chase Carlisle, new members Philip Spinosa and Green, and Jeff Warren, and Smiley.

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