CJ Davis press conference

It’s a police description of a crime suspect heard all too often across an increasingly violent American landscape as a young father ran away from police who were beating him unmercifully alongside a Memphis highway.

“Young male, Black, slim build, blue jeans and a hoodie.”

When Cerelyn “CJ” Davis ended her five-year tenure as Durham’s police chief in 2021 to become the director of the Memphis Police Department, she was praised for being a personable, formidable leader whose law enforcement philosophy helped to explain why the city had few reports of violence or vandalism during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

No one contemplated that Davis would be at the center of a senseless, maniacal homicide that has attracted national and global attention after five Memphis police officers, all Black, were charged with the brutal beating death of 29-year-old motorist Tyre Nichols on January 7.

After reviewing the video of Nichols’s police beating death, Davis was praised for immediately firing the officers, placing them under arrest, and making the video available to the public. 

Davis delivered an intense statement that was made public on social media Thursday, one day before the officers were indicted on charges of one count each of second-degree murder, aggravated assault while acting in concert, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of official misconduct, and one count of judicial oppression, the Washington Post reported.

“In light of the horrific circumstances surrounding the death of Tyre Nichols, it is absolutely incumbent upon me, your chief, to address the status of what the Memphis Police Department is doing, has done, and will continue to do in furtherance of finding truth in this tragic loss, ensuring we communicate with honesty and transparency, and that there is absolute accountability for those responsible for Tyre’s death.”

The officers, like Nichols, are all Black. They are Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Jr., Emmitt Martin, III, Justin Smith, and Tadarrius Bean. Davis announced that they were fired last week.

“These officers were found to be directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols.” Davis said. “Concurrent within that investigation, other [Memphis] officers are still under investigation for department policy violations. Some infractions are less egregious than others.”

Davis added the investigation is in concert with other external investigations, and she promised “full and complete cooperation” with other investigating agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee State Bureau of Investigation, and Shelby County District Attorney’s Office “to determine the entire scope of facts that contributed to Tyre Nichols’s death.”

Davis said that in addition to being the police chief, she is a citizen who lives in the community, a mother, and a caring human being.

“This is not just a professional failing,” she said about Nichols’s beating death. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.

By early Friday evening, minutes before police released a video of the fatal beating, more than 72,000 had viewed Davis’s four-minute and 11 second statement on YouTube, and many of the nearly 400 comments praised Davis for her professionalism and her vow to hold the officers accountable for Nichols’s death.

“What an amazing police chief,” one commenter wrote. “It’s  nice to see transparency and accountability instead of the usual cover-up. With a chief like this there is a possibility to regain trust in the community.”

Near the end of Davis’s statement, she said that the police beating was, “heinous, reckless, and inhumane,” and that when the video is made public, “you will see this for yourselves.”

It was just after 7 p.m. EST when national news outlets showed the video that depicted a graphic and barbaric beating that began soon after police stopped Nichols’s car, pulled him out, and began beating him, while using a Taser and pepper spray. 

“I didn’t do anything!” Nichols yelled.

When the officers demanded that he get on the ground, Nichols yelled again “I am on the ground!”

Even though he was literally yelling for his life, Nichols appeared to be the only calm person at the traffic stop. At one point one of the cops maced a fellow officer.

“You guys are doing a lot,” Nichols told the officers before he managed to wrest free and run away.

The police later captured Nichols near his home. He was already pinned on the ground by several of the officers, when one of the cops approached and slammed Nichols with his police baton. Then the officers lifted him up off the ground and continued to beat him. One officer punched Nichols repeatedly in the face before delivering what appeared to be a knockout punch, and the officers kicked Nichols while he was down on the ground.

Nichols can be heard repeatedly yelling for his mother —“Ma!”— during the senseless beating.

After the video was shown, Nichols’s stepfather, Rodney Wells, told MSNBC commentator Joy Reid that his son liked skateboarding, loved his own son, and enjoyed taking pictures of the sun  setting. He had an “infectious personality” and was a hugger. He called the officers “monsters” who destroyed a young man who was simply trying to get home to his family.

“Everybody adored him,” Wells said. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com