MICAH Youth Council member Carolina Calvo stands behind a podium and speaks to a crowd during a prayer vigil at I AM A MAN Plaza in Memphis.
Carolina Calvo (right), a member of the MICAH Youth Council, speaks during an April prayer vigil at I AM A MAN Plaza timed to the selection of a new Memphis police director. Mayor Jim Strickland announced his selection of Durham, North Carolina Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for the position Monday. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

For months, community advocates have asked to be included in the process to replace Memphis Police Department director Michael Rallings.

This week, they got some of what they wanted, albeit at the very tail end of the process: City officials told Memphis City Council members that they would hold a virtual, live-streamed forum with the mayor’s pick for police chief, Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, who now heads the Durham, North Carolina police department.

And the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope Youth Council, which had been asking since October to participate in the selection of the city’s top cop, got a last-minute invitation to an indoor luncheon during a pandemic and during school hours. 

Portrait of Durham, North Carolina Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis
Durham, North Carolina Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis. Photo courtesy of the City of Memphis

The public forum development came via an email sent after Tuesday’s council meeting, at which members unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to hold a town hall session with the police chief. 

“After reviewing the resolution regarding a virtual question and answer session with Chief Davis, the mayor has agreed, in this single instance, for the administration to work with the Personnel Committee Chairman and council staff to create a Q&A session that will be live streamed,” wrote Memphis’ chief human resources officer Alex Smith in an email obtained by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. 

“We are very open to the public submitting questions to the council that can be answered virtually by Chief Davis in a respectful manner,” the email reads. “As a next step, I will reach out to Personnel Committee Chairman (Chase) Carlisle to develop the format and logistics for the session.” 

(On Thursday, the city announced a virtual Q&A with Davis at 1 p.m. on April 30. It will be moderated by Vickie Terry, executive director of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. Click here for details and to submit a question.)

Smith’s email was sent the same day that criminal justice reformers allowed themselves a moment to hope that the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict might lead to greater police accountability. That hope was rattled with news that also on Tuesday, Columbus, Ohio police shot and killed a Black girl who’d called 911 for help.

Davis has been Durham’s police chief since 2016. Like Memphis, that city saw a spike in gun violence last year, with a nearly 70% increase in shootings when compared to 2019.

While interviewing for that job, Durham held at least one public forum with Davis and another finalist, something advocates have noted while asking for a similar event here. Previously Davis was Atlanta’s deputy chief of police and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Activists said that while they support the town hall forum, a more inclusive approach would have involved more community members before Mayor Jim Strickland made his selection, some said.

“There are plenty of groups and activists who have not been invited to the table,” said Janiece J. Lee, vice president of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope .

“And all in this process it has been handpicked by select invitation who is going to be included and who is going to be engaged in the decision making.” 

In response to police violence across the nation, including the murder of George Floyd, 

Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action – a coalition of more than 100 activist groups including Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, Orpheum Theatre Group, Hattiloo Theatre, BRIDGES, and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis – sent an open letter to city officials in June 2020. They also cited a local incident in which Victoria Jones, executive director of The Collective art space in Orange Mound, was tackled by police and arrested at a protest on Beale Street.

The letter listed eight changes the organization demanded of the police department. The final point: “Include grassroots black and brown leaders and activists on the search and selection committee for the next MPD Chief.”

Strickland responded to that demand, in a letter saying: “As we did in 2016, the community will be involved in this process.”

A socially distance crowd listens to speakers in front of the I AM A MAN sculpture in Memphis.
MICAH’s interfaith prayer vigil was scheduled to coincide with Easter, Passover and Ramadan. Attendees prayed for racial justice in policing. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

In October 2020, MICAH Youth Council asked that the mayor include them in the selection process. According to a statement provided by MICAH, Strickland replied on Dec. 4 that the International Association of Chiefs of Police was conducting the search on the city’s behalf. He advised the youth council to contact the IACP, which the youth group did, though they received only an auto-response.

In late January, Smith told the youth council that the city was considering involving young people in the search. Strickland also said publicly that a youth panel would be involved, according to the youth council’s statement, but by March, the group had heard nothing.

On March 11, the city announced the seven police director candidates. Of the four external candidates, three had troubled pasts

Joseph Sullivan, Philadelphia’s deputy police commissioner, resigned days before a new commissioner started, telling a local news station the decision was “not (his) choice.” Fort Worth’s former chief Joel Fitzgerald was fired in 2019 for what the city manager said was a “series” of issues, including confronting another officer at an event. And Oakland’s former chief Anne Kirkpatrick was condemned by the department’s court-appointed monitor for her handling of a homeless man’s death, in which she acted with “an appalling measure of incompetence, deception, and indifference,” according to the monitor’s report. She was fired in February 2020.

Three days after the mayor selected the finalists, in a statement to the city council, MICAH Youth Council again demanded to be included in the interview process.

Strickland’s administration convened “community panels” of interviewers a week later, but of the 20 panelists only one – 28-year-old community organizer DeVante Hill – could be considered an activist. The remainder included panelists like District Attorney Amy Weirich; Rev. Bill Adkins, pastor at Greater Imani Church; and city employees like Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen and Smith. 

Tommy and Marilyn Holman bow their heads in prayer during a service in Memphis.
Tommy and Marilyn Holman pray during MICAH’s vigil at I AM A MAN Plaza beside Clayborn Temple. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Two weeks ago, Strickland told FOX13 he didn’t think community forums would be useful.

“There’s no evidence across the country that those forums lead to a better selection. Very few people would take part in it,” Strickland said.  

“It wouldn’t be a cross section of the city. What we’ve done is we have interview panels that are truly a cross section: neighborhood leaders, nonprofit leaders, the activist who led the largest peaceful protest all last summer.” 

Cardell Orrin, an organizer with Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action, said the mayor’s comments were “disappointing, to say the least.” And he didn’t buy the mayor’s argument that people wouldn’t take part, if offered the chance, given public involvement on other issues such as planning projects with Accelerate Memphis.

The administration didn’t include enough independent community input in the selection process, he said.

“The structure of the panel interviews that mostly came from supporters of Strickland, for the most part, were not really … representative of the full community, and not really weighted well in terms of a broad swath of community input,” Orrin said.

Josh Spickler, executive director at Just City, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said he too was frustrated, but not surprised, at the lack of community input into Davis’ selection.

“It’s just not the hallmark of this administration or this police department to put transparency and accountability at the top of the list. They will argue till their last day in office that’s not true,” he said. “It would make sense that the selection not be all that transparent either.”

Strickland’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.

MICAH Youth Council also held a prayer vigil on April 2, where members once again asked the city to allow them to meet the candidates and ask them questions.

Then, on April 5, Strickland released a statement saying that although he had planned to announce his pick for chief the following day, he was changing course, adding Davis to the list of candidates. “To maintain the integrity of the process, we will be reconvening the original community panels to interview this candidate and to provide feedback,” the statement said.

The next day, MICAH again demanded a public forum with the final candidates, saying they wanted “the opportunity to meet the final candidates, ask questions, and hear how they plan to usher in a new day of racial justice in law enforcement for our city.”

After MICAH asked the council to set up a public forum, Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas proposed a resolution asking for an event with the police chief finalists. But on Monday, the day before the council would have voted on the resolution, Strickland announced he’d selected Davis.

Easter-Thomas then changed the resolution’s language to ask for an event with Davis before the council votes on her appointment. A forum would allow Memphians to “actually be able to hear from our appointee, giving her an opportunity to really introduce herself to us and the city,” Easter-Thomas said at a committee meeting Tuesday morning. 

Later on Tuesday, Smith sent the email to the council saying Davis would participate in a virtual question and answer session.

MICAH’s Youth Council did receive an invitation to speak with Davis, less than 24 hours before the event. The luncheon, which was held Tuesday and during school hours, was inside, though most children are not currently eligible for vaccination.

In response, the youth council thanked the city for the invitation, but expressed concerns about COVID-19 exposure and the short notice.

“The luncheon was during school hours (Shelby County School hours are Monday-Friday, 7:15am-2:15pm). Many of our principals require at least a 3 day notice in advance for an excused absence,” they wrote. 

They added they were “disappointed that the request from our Mayor would have put many of us at risk of COVID-19 exposure,” and said none of the council’s members felt the indoor event was safe. 

They once again requested a time to meet with Davis “that is publicized at least a week in advance” and “that is either virtual, outdoor, or fully masked.”

“We would ensure attendance at this future meeting would represent a true cross section of youth in our city.”

The city has not yet responded to their request.

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