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Memphis police chief is NC native and Durham’s former chief of police. Who is she?

The police chief in Memphis, where protests are expected after police beat a Black man to death, is a North Carolina native who was Durham’s former chief of police.

Cerelyn Davis, who goes by C.J., was born in a military family stationed at Fort Bragg.

She spent five years as Durham’s police chief, leaving in 2021 to take the job in Memphis. In both cities, she was the first African American woman to lead the department.

“It’s no secret that other eyes around the country have been following her. And this isn’t surprising at all,” Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton told The News & Observer when Davis resigned. “It’s disappointing that she may be leaving, but not surprising at all. She’s a star, and stars rise.”

Davis, who has been making appearances on national media in anticipation of the video footage’s release, called for protests to remain nonviolent. Change must come, she said.

“I expect you to feel outrage at the disregard of basic human rights,” she said. “Those five officers and others failed our community and failed the Nichols family.”

Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Memphis, Tenn., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in advance of the release of police body cam video showing Tyre Nichols being beaten by Memphis police officers. Nichols later died as a result of the incident.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Memphis, Tenn., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in advance of the release of police body cam video showing Tyre Nichols being beaten by Memphis police officers. Nichols later died as a result of the incident.

What happened to Tyre Nichols?

Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died in the hospital Jan. 10, three days after Memphis police officers beat him during a traffic stop.

Footage of the beating is set to be released at Friday night, and protests are expected to roil the city and elsewhere around the country.

“This is not just a professional failing,” Davis said in a video released by her office Wednesday. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual. This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane.

“You will see this for yourselves.”

Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis speaks during a press conference with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel to address the increase in gun violence this year, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Durham, N.C.
Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis speaks during a press conference with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel to address the increase in gun violence this year, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Durham, N.C.

Ben Crump, the Nichols family attorney, likened the video to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, which sparked deadly riots.

“It is appalling,” Crump told reporters.

Davis fired all five officers present last week: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith. Others are investigation, she said.

The five officers were charged with second-degree murder Thursday and other crimes, including aggravated kidnapping and official misconduct.

Who is Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis?

Davis, a law enforcement veteran had been deputy chief of Atlanta’s police department when she stepped into her position in Durham in 2016. Then, the Durham Police Department faced public criticism over racial disparities in traffic stops and misdemeanor marijuana enforcement, The News & Observer reported.

Davis made changes that include requiring officers to cite — not arrest — for certain marijuana offenses and other misdemeanors; reducing the number of traffic stops for minor violations; and sending qualifying young people to a misdemeanor diversion program.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis addresses media and attendees of a press conference about state wide action to end gun violence on National Gun Violence Awareness Day, Friday, June 7, 2019.
Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis addresses media and attendees of a press conference about state wide action to end gun violence on National Gun Violence Awareness Day, Friday, June 7, 2019.

She was part of the national conversation on police reform in 2020 sparked by Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd.

“I believe that we need to have sweeping changes and police reform where we are supported with legislation and that agencies are held accountable with accreditation to ensure every agency large and small has the best practices in place, “ Davis said on “Good Morning America” in June 2020.

Davis also was featured on national TV in 2017 alongside Durham’s current police chief, Patrice Andrews, in a segment journalist Megyn Kelly held on Black women in law enforcement.

“If your idea of a police chief is a gruff cigar-chomping tough guy, then you need to meet C.J. Davis,” Kelly started the segment, in which Davis said she still gets followed in stores. She discussed how the average male office is eight-and-half time more likely than a female officer to face an excessive force complaint.

Megyn Kelly, right, talks to North Carolina police chiefs on “Megyn Kelly Today” Tuesday, September 26, 2017. Kelly brought four of the six African-American women police chiefs in North Carolina on her nationally televised show. From left, Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins, Morrisville Police Chief Patrice Andrews, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis.