Two Memphis police cars parked behind Memphis City Hall.
Memphis Police Department officers talk in their vehicles behind Memphis City Hall. City Council approved Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis as chief of police Tuesday. Photo by Brandon Dill

The Memphis City Council approved the mayor’s appointee for chief of police Tuesday, making Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis the first Black woman to hold the position.

By a vote of 11 to 1, with one abstention, Davis was confirmed to the position, replacing interim Police Director Mike Ryall. Councilman Martavius Jones was the only “no” vote.

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

Mayor Jim Strickland chose Davis for the position just over two weeks ago, after a monthslong selection process that began with the announcement in November that former Police Director Michael Rallings would be retiring. The same day Strickland announced she was his selection, Davis resigned as police chief in Durham, North Carolina, effective June 11. Before her role there began in 2016, Davis was deputy chief with the Atlanta Police Department. 

At the council meeting, Jones said his no vote did not reflect how he felt about Davis personally, but rather his opinion that an internal candidate would have been a better choice.

“There are some instances where I think that an external candidate would be better. There are other instances that I think that an internal candidate would be better. And so the one vote that I have will reflect what my personal feeling is for this position at this particular time. But it will not be indicative of the support I have for you as police director,” he said.

In her remarks, Councilwoman Rhonda Logan said she agreed with much of what Jones said. She voted in favor of Davis, but then changed her vote to abstain.

But Councilman JB Smiley Jr. argued that Davis’ status as an outsider was an advantage.

“For the critics, I want you to know that based on my impressions of her, she’s going to bring fresh ideas and I think we can’t continue to do the same things over and over and expect different results. She brings us something different, she brings us a new perspective and I look forward to supporting her tenure.”

Some activists criticized the selection process for leaving out community organizers. Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope’s youth council had been asking Strickland to include young people in the selection process since October, and along with other activists, had been pushing for a public town hall with the full slate of candidates.

That forum never came because Strickland announced Davis as his selection before the City Council could approve a resolution calling for a public event. 

On Friday, Davis alone participated in a tempered, hour-long virtual question-and-answer session moderated by NAACP Memphis Branch Executive Director Vickie Terry. Questions were pre-selected from community member submissions via an online form and organized by topic. Some experts and community members said the form – which asked for name, address, phone number and email address and required a signature creating a “legally binding contract” – was unnecessarily intrusive.

During the session, Davis said community policing should direct resources to “areas where the data shows that the need is the most.” She also reiterated the police department’s position to not ask about immigration status and discussed an intervention program in Durham called the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, in which police make a referral to the court system instead of charging someone for a crime. 

She briefly discussed the 1978 consent decree, which barred the police department from spying on activists, though her answer on how she’d hold officers accountable was vague.

“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,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong Memphis City Council vote count for Tuesday’s confirmation of Cerelyn ‘C.J.’ Davis as the city’s police chief. The final vote was 11-1, with one abstention. Councilwoman Rhonda Logan initially voted to confirm Davis but later changed her vote to abstain. The story has been corrected to reflect her vote.

Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at hannah.grabenstein@mlk50.com


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to mlk50@mlk50.com.