Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, whose tenure helped stabilize a rocky phase for the department, is leaving to become director of the Memphis Police Department.

City leaders praised her ability to rekindle trust in the police department.

“While I am sad to see her leave, I am excited for the next chapter in her extraordinary career,” City Manager Wanda Page said Sunday in a video statement about Davis’s resignation.

“Her five-year tenure in Durham has been transformative,” Page added. “She became a valued member of this great community, championing community policing in the city, as well as among police officers and staff.”

Davis was a familiar face all over Durham. She was a personable, unfailingly pleasant leader who kept her feet on the sidewalks and ears attuned to community voices to have a genuine feel for the pulse of the city, city leaders said. 

Page said “it was not uncommon to see her at various programs and at houses of worship throughout Durham.”

Perhaps Davis’s law enforcement philosophy helps to explain why social justice rallies last summer in Durham resulted in few reports of violence and vandalism unlike in other cities across the country, including Raleigh. 

“There was very little in Durham,” Mayor Steve Schewel said regarding local violence during the summer protests that spread in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “Durham has done so much better with a non-confrontational approach that respects residents’ First Amendment rights [to peacefully protest].”

Davis’s last day with the police department will be June 1. She was one of eight finalists considered for the Memphis position. 

The personable police leader has formidable law enforcement leadership chops. She’s going to need them. Memphis, with a population of more than 650,000 residents and a police department of 2,600 employees, reported a record 332 homicides last year. That’s nearly as many as Durham, with a population of about 270,000, reported over the past decade (356).

In 2019, Davis served as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and was appointed last year to the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice by Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Before Davis was hired in 2016 as the first African American woman to serve as Durham’s police chief, she was deputy chief of police with the Atlanta Police Department. 

Davis’s tenure in Durham was in sharp contrast to her predecessor, Jose Lopez Sr., whose eight years at the helm of the police department was riddled with widespread community distrust amid accusations and evidence of racial profiling made public by several community groups, including the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement (FADE) coalition, and the NAACP.

After the controversial tasering of an unarmed Black man at a local Harris Teeter, Lopez announced his retirement in late 2015.

Davis, on the other hand, relied on a law enforcement philosophy that focused on building relationships with the community. During her tenure, for instance, she created two sworn positions to foster outreach with members of the city’s Hispanic and LGBTQ communities.

Davis also supported the city’s misdemeanor diversion program that aims to keep young people out of court for minor offenses, and in 2018, she threw her weight behind U-Visas, which are given to undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes and who cooperate with law enforcement to track down criminals. 

Davis’s leadership was not without setbacks. Last year, for instance, the city reached a dismal plateau with more than 800 shootings and reported a rise in overall gun-related crime, which mirrored a national trend.

At a press conference Monday, Schewel said he “wasn’t surprised at all” that Davis was selected to head Memphis police, calling her pending departure “bittersweet.”

“It’s sweet for her,” Schewel said, “a great opportunity and the capstone of her career. But we’re sorry to lose her.”

He described Davis as a great leader who changed the culture of the police department “in a super positive way” and that her biggest accomplishment was rebuilding trust in the police department within the community.

“It was at a low ebb when she got here,” he said.

Page, the city manager, said an interim chief will be named to head the department “in the coming days,” and the nationwide search for a new permanent chief “will begin immediately.” 

She anticipates the search will take 60 to 120 days and promised that the community will be updated and involved in the selection process.

“[Davis’s] impact has laid a solid foundation as we seek to reimagine policing in ways that engage community voices while improving and protecting the safety of residents of our great city,” she said.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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