Memphis police chief faces crucial test leading department through Tyre Nichols case
By Christal Hayes, CNN
It’s only been 20 months since Cerelyn “CJ” Davis took charge of the Memphis Police Department.
Known nationally as an advocate for police reform, she touted big plans that included forging new relationships with community leaders to tackle police reform and lower violent crime — issues she hoped would elicit trust in law enforcement in Tennessee’s second most populous city.
But her leadership now faces a crucial test. The country will be watching how Memphis handles the death of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by officers after a traffic stop earlier this month.
“If you had to handpick a leader who you would want in place under these circumstances, it would be Cerelyn Davis,” Mark-Anthony Middleton, mayor pro tempore in Durham, North Carolina, where Davis worked before moving to Tennessee, told CNN.
A ‘blueprint for America’
Thus far, the quick actions taken by Davis and other leaders, including Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, have stood out amid the dismal stream of police killings in recent years. Davis fired the five officers involved in Nichols’ death within two weeks of the Jan. 7 traffic stop. On Thursday, Mulroy announced charges against them, including second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping.
Davis has sternly condemned the officers, calling their actions “incomprehensible” and “unconscionable.” Video of Nichols’ arrest show “acts that defy humanity,” she said during an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. That footage was released Friday, showing Nichols moaning and screaming for his mother as officers punch, kick, pepper spray and baton him.
“I felt that I needed to do something and do something quickly,” Davis said. “I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything of that nature my entire career.”
Experts and Nichols’ family have commended her leadership.
“She’s doing an excellent job,” RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, told CNN Friday. “I feel she’s moving things along, and I just I like what she’s doing.”
Ben Crump, the high-profile civil rights attorney who has represented scores of families after violent interactions with police, similarly applauded the handling of this case, calling it “the blueprint for America.”
Crump, who is representing Nichols’ family, noted the scores of high-profile deaths caused by police in recent years. He also pointed to the lengthy amount of time it typically takes before an officer is fired or charged.
“When you see officers committing crimes on video, then you can’t tell us that you gotta go six months, you gotta go a year,” Crump told CNN. “Here in Memphis, we might have the blueprint that it can be done swiftly and efficiently.”
Quick action can carry risks
John Miller, CNN’s chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst, noted that Davis took immediate action after Nichols’ death.
“She came in, reviewed the video and immediately started the internal investigation that resulted in findings, administrative charges and firings of all five officers,” Miller said. “This happened within a number of days. These are processes that can take months or years.”
Moving swiftly can be risky for a police chief, Miller said, when balancing community pressures and the morale of officers who want to know their boss has their backs.
“Davis came in facing a perfect storm of problems. Because of morale issues in the post-George Floyd time, many of the most experienced officers were retiring at a time when police were not only feeling underappreciated but in some way painted with a broad brush and vilified,” Miller said, citing the upheaval in law enforcement after George Floyd’s 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis officers.
Additionally, Miller said the city saw a record-high murder rate in 2021 and was struggling to both retain and attract officers, especially from communities of color in a city that’s nearly 65% Black, according to the Census Bureau. When Davis joined the department, they were short about 500 officers, Miller added.
“Another chief might have stretched this investigation out or judged each officer on exactly what role they played in the incident,” Miller said. “As we learned in George Floyd, even if you are standing back but not doing anything to stop it, you are all in. That’s why she fired everyone involved.”
Before she was chosen to lead the department, some city leaders expressed concern she’d have an uphill battle as an outsider. They noted she would need to work to understand the complexities of the city, along with winning the trust of the department she’d be leading, according to reports from The Commercial Appeal. Davis was the first outsider in decades, and the first woman ever, to lead the Memphis Police Department, the outlet reported.
Police reform advocate
Before moving to Memphis in 2021, Davis spent more than 25 years working for the Atlanta Police Department in a variety of positions, including deputy police chief.
She was fired in 2008 after being accused of telling officers to not investigate a sex crimes case involving an Atlanta police sergeant, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was later reinstated after challenging the allegations, the outlet reported, and continued working there until 2016, when she moved to North Carolina to lead the Durham Police Department.
She spent five years in Durham, including during the police brutality protests in the summer of 2020.
During that pivotal moment for law enforcement, Davis also served as president of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which calls for equity in policing.
She testified before the Senate in 2020 as the body debated federal action on police reform, telling lawmakers of the need to curb qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields law enforcement from liability in constitutional violations. She also called for an accelerated adoption of changes like better data collection and mandatory requirements for fellow officers to step in if another officer is using excessive force.
“As an African American woman, I can unequivocally attest to the perpetual existence of discriminatory practices that remain a haunting reality for people of color throughout our nation,” Davis told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I am cautiously optimistic that the cries of our America will be heard and acted upon so that once and for all Black lives are valued in the eyes of all police officers.”
During her tenure in Durham, the city worked to de-emphasize traffic stops, including halting checkpoints that led to over policing, Middleton said. He added Davis also worked to lower minor drug arrests.
“It might sound obvious, but she did the work to show police aren’t occupiers. It’s not us versus them. She worked with the community and listened. She helped the community see police are part of the fabric of this community,” Middleton said of Davis’ time in Durham.
When it comes to Memphis and the fallout from the Nichols case, Davis’ role is just beginning. Middleton said the eyes of the country will remain on the city and its police department, particularly specialized units like the one involved in Nichols’ death, which was permanently deactivated Saturday.
Middleton said he hopes the swift actions by Davis and other leaders help fend off violent protests, especially after the release of videos showing Nichols’ violent and graphic arrest. Middleton noted, however, that protesting is often part of a community’s healing process.
“Think about the protests we’ve seen over the years and the chants,” he said. “‘No justice, no peace!’ That’s not the case here. They’ve taken action and I think that could go a long way.”
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CNN’s Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.