Screenshots of Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s selection to be the city’s next police chief, participating in a virtual Q&A Friday. Photo illustration by MLK50

Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, who would be Memphis’ police chief and the first Black woman in that role, fielded relatively innocuous, pre-screened questions during an hourlong virtual forum Friday. Reporter Hannah Grabenstein watched the event, in which NAACP Memphis chapter executive director Vickie Terry posed the questions to Davis, who is currently police chief in Durham, North Carolina. Here are some key moments.

For background, read how convoluted it was to submit a question, how some community members felt left out of the process and the questions residents would have asked.

Answer we pretty much expected to hear

Davis’ response to a question on equitable neighborhood policing wasn’t surprising, but it was light on details:

“For those that might not be familiar with the terminology, it basically just means that we ensure that the resources of the police department are fairly and evenly distributed throughout the city, that there’s no such thing as the good side of the track or the bad side of the track. 

“And that we deploy our resources based on data – whether neighborhood watch programs, PAL, traffic enforcement and other crime suppression and prevention resources. When crime reduction strategies are rolled out and developed, emphasis should be placed on the areas where the data shows that the need is the most.” 

Answer that suggests Davis might need to read up on Memphis history

In response to a question about the 1978 consent decree, which barred the police department from spying on activists, and how she’d hold officers accountable, Davis said this:

“Well, I am familiar with the law and even though it’s dated to some degree, recently the consent decree was modified and the department has had training as it relates to the modifications to it – and I plan to ensure that they continue to honor the 1978 consent decree. 

“I believe in the First Amendment rights of individuals to be able to communicate and protest as they wish, and I will ensure that the work that the previous director has done continues as it relates to complying with that policy.”

(Editor’s note: After the ACLU sued the city in 2017, a federal judge ruled the following year that the city had violated the consent decree by blacklisting some people from city hall without an escort.)

Protesters face Memphis Police Department officers and state troopers near the end of a 2016 demonstration that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40. Photo by Brandon Dill

Asked, but not answered

Davis was asked how she’d reduce crime without involving police.

Though her answer largely avoided the question, she referenced an “intervention” in Durham called the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, in which police make a referral to the court system. The program is available to “all first-time misdemeanor offenses except for firearm offenses, sexual offenses, and traffic matters,” according to its website. The program is for 18-26 year olds as well as older adults, according to police discretion.

“Our Misdemeanor Diversion Program started out with ages up to 17 and 18, and then we expanded it to 24 and 25, mainly because we realized that young people’s minds don’t develop and they make bad choices – even when they’re in college. And a charge on a person’s record can make the difference of them continuing on a positive trajectory in their lives or having a tarnished record, where they can’t get a job or they have problems in school now.”

A progressive position

Davis was also asked what her relationship would be with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and her strategy to ensure “immigrants regardless of their status are safe and protected.” In response, Davis said that when she worked in Durham and in Atlanta, it was important to have a liaison to the Hispanic community to communicate, educate and build relationships. 

“Our directives are that we don’t ask about immigration status. And we send out various types of communications – and I’m sure this is something that is effective even in Memphis –  that we let our communities know, especially our Hispanic and Latinx communities know, that we’re not in the immigration business. …

“It’s not a priority of the police department to be in the immigration business and strong policies and procedures and directives in place will help guide those interactions with our community.”

When it’s time to rhyme

On how she’d handle officer misconduct and discipline, especially with regard to racial profiling and excessive force, she replied that the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommendations were “excellent.” She also said that departments need to regularly analyze data on officer encounters that could point to racial profiling or other abuses.

“One of my mottos, and my folks know what it means: You have to inspect what you expect. And if you aren’t constantly evaluating what is happening in your department, then these types of failures could happen. And the other side to that is to be transparent and share that information with the public.”

The city council’s personnel and governmental affairs committee will vote Tuesday on Davis’ appointment. It will then go to the full council for a vote. 

Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at hannah.grabenstein@mlk50.com


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