MPD Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis on the video released Wednesday night. (Screen capture)

Is 2½ years enough time to start a new job in Memphis, get rid of bad cops in the police department and put a stop to violent crime?

That, essentially, is the question facing the Memphis City Council as they meet today (Jan. 23) to decide whether Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis should keep her job.

“I know what is needed for this Police Department,” Davis said in a Jan. 9 committee meeting. “I felt like I was brought here to make change and not just keep things the way they were.”

But change has not come fast enough for some newly elected council members and their constituents. And despite resounding support from new Mayor Paul Young, a re-confirmation for Davis is anything but a lock.

“Make no mistake, all of our fates are riding on us getting this right,” Young told the committee Jan. 9. “Right now, I firmly believe we have the right person and I stand behind her.”

On the other hand, Council Chairman JB Smiley Jr. has seen enough.

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

The drama plays out against a backdrop of the one-year anniversary of the brutal and ultimately fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five rogue officers in January 2023. After video of the incident was released, Davis swiftly fired all five officers, and shuttered the SCORPION unit those men belonged to. The officers were quickly brought up on federal charges.

At the time, national activist and attorney Ben Crump said Memphis ‘should be the blueprint’ for how officer misconduct should be handled anywhere in the country.

Beyond that, Memphians have grown increasingly outraged at the rapid-fire pace of violent crime, especially those that kill children and elderly people. Memphis had a record 397 homicides in 2023, up by 38 percent from 2022, when the city saw 288 homicides.

In the Jan. 9 meeting, Davis stood by her record, sharing a slide deck of her accomplishments.

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

But Davis has her supporters — among them the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP and the Memphis-based African American Police Association. Leaders from both organizations say it’s too soon to pull the plug on Davis’ vision for the city.

“She’s only been in her position a little more than two years,” said Vickie Hayes-Terry, Executive Director of the Memphis NAACP. “We feel that is not enough time to clean up a police department that had major problems before she arrived.” 

Christopher Price, President of the AAPA and a current Memphis police officer, echoed that sentiment.

“Chief Davis, or anyone in her position, is going to end up being a scapegoat,” Price said. “She’s had to learn the city, the community, the psychology and the sociology of Memphis. You can’t expect immediate results. It’s a challenging job with no absolute blueprint.”

Both the NAACP and AAPA indicate that the Tennessee State Legislature should shoulder some of the blame for the uptick in gun-related crime.

“We understand that the homicide rate increased last year,” Hayes-Terry said. “But we also understand that state laws were changed to open carry for guns.” 

In 2021, lawmakers passed a controversial bill allowing people to own and carry firearms without a permit. Before the bill was signed into law, Davis’ predecessor feared violent crime would rise.

“I’m just very alarmed that our state legislature is poised to pass permitless carry and our governor is waving around like there is a victory lap to be taken,” former MPD Director Michael Rallings told Action News 5 in 2021.

Price has watched Rallings’ fears become reality.

“Nobody thought that through,” Price said of permitless carry.  “Maybe part of the legislature’s rationale was that if everyone has guns, nobody is going to commit crimes. Like in the cowboy days. But I think it’s had the complete opposite effect.

“Now everybody has a gun,” Price said. “So everybody says, ‘I’m the tough guy on the block. I got this gun, I can even up the score.’” 

Campaign promises made to constituents will likely come into play. Several of the new council members campaigned on doing something about crime and may feel obligated to shake up the police department — especially with citizens passionately calling for change like they did on Jan. 9.

“The young people of Memphis showed up and supported you because we believed that you would continue to listen to us and give us a voice when you got elected,” Brandon Washington told the Council on Jan. 9. “I implore you to not reappoint CJ Davis to the Chief of Police because we cannot keep making the same mistakes. Give the young people of this city a platform to speak and your listening ears, and you will be amazed by the solutions we can come up with.”

Still, the NAACP and AAPA want the council to give Davis and her plan some time to work.

“There are a lot of other issues that we’ve gotta deal with,” Hayes-Terry said. “Poverty, mental illness . . . a lot of things are happening here in the city that are causing individuals to act out and kill each other.

“We’ve got to look past the police department,” she continued. “We’ve got to see what can we do as a community to change things here in our community.

“So we’ll stand by our recommendation that the Memphis City Council keep Chief Davis and let her continue to work toward reducing crime here in Memphis.”