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Tyre Nichols case is ‘defining moment’ for Memphis chief Cerelyn Davis

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis speaks during an interview in Memphis on Friday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
7 min

Tyre Nichols’s death after a police beating in Memphis has shined a blazing national spotlight on that city’s police force — and Cerelyn J. Davis, its chief.

When Davis took the job in 2021, she praised the department and its officers. Less than two years later, she is leading a police force in crisis, after five officers were charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death earlier this month of Nichols, a 29-year-old who was pulled over while driving. Davis called Nichols’s death “horrific” and pledged transparency during what she called “our defining moment.”

“This is not just a professional failing,” Davis said in a video statement this week. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”

(Video: Memphis Police Dept.)

The five officers, who were fired last week, were indicted Thursday and also charged with aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping and misconduct. Police have said Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving and then fled on foot; video footage of the incident released Friday evening showed multiple officers beating him.

When incidents like Nichols’s death happen — police uses of force, including shootings, that become nationwide flash points — local chiefs often wind up functioning as de facto spokespeople, not only for their departments but for law enforcement overall. Other than the officer or officers involved, these policing leaders quickly become perhaps the most prominent law enforcement officials in the country, tasked with speaking to a shaken local community, a criticized department and a nation outraged.

Davis, a Black woman leading a police force, is a relative rarity among police chiefs, who tend to be White and male. Since Nichols’s death, Davis has carefully balanced her response, sharply denouncing the officers involved while still vocally supporting the rest of her department, saying: “This is not a reflection of the good work that many Memphis police officers do every day.”

Her behavior has drawn some approval from Nichols’s family.

“The family is very satisfied with the process, with the police chief, with the D.A.,” Nichols’s stepfather, Rodney Wells, said Friday.

Davis enters into this position after more than three decades in law enforcement. Davis, also known as “CJ,” spent much of her policing career with the Atlanta department, rising to the rank of deputy chief before leaving to lead the Durham, N.C., police in 2016.

She guided that department until 2021, when she was tapped to take over the Memphis force while it was confronting a record-setting year of homicides. She has also served as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a policing group.

Davis has spoken about her upbringing in the American South and the distrust that communities of color have for law enforcement. She has also spoken about the importance of addressing larger problems within law enforcement, beyond just prosecuting individual officers who unlawfully use force.

5 fired Memphis officers charged with second-degree murder of Tyre Nichols

After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020, spurring nationwide outrage, Davis testified before the U.S. Senate about his “senseless death” — saying that the problems did not end with the individual officers at the scene.

“Though it is very important that the Minneapolis officers involved are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it is just as important that we address the systemic shortcomings and oftentimes failures of our law enforcement and criminal justice systems,” Davis said in her testimony.

Derek Chauvin, the officer filmed driving his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was convicted of murder in state court the following year. He later pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Floyd’s civil rights. The three other officers at the scene were also convicted of violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to provide medical aid; two of the three officers were also found guilty of failing to intervene with Chauvin.

After Floyd’s death, Davis also called for broader nationwide policies requiring officers to step in and stop other officers when they are using inappropriate force.

“It does go back to culture as well, what’s acceptable and how we train our officers and help them to understand that it is your responsibility to intervene,” Davis said during an interview that summer with ABC11, a local television channel in North Carolina. “If the policies don’t exist and there are no ramifications for just standing around watching a man lose his life, then … unfortunately, and I hate to say it, it will happen again.”

In the federal case over George Floyd’s killing, former officers put the Minneapolis police on trial

The next year, Davis was selected to lead the department in Memphis, a city of about 628,000, from a pool of seven finalists, according to the city. Other candidates included deputy chiefs within the department along with outside candidates, among them veterans of the Philadelphia and Seattle police forces.

When she accepted the job, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland noted that she was the first woman to ever lead the department, as well as the first chief selected from outside its ranks in more than four decades.

In a survey conducted in 2021, the Police Executive Research Forum found that 9 percent of police chiefs were female, while 14 percent of police chiefs were Black. A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of local police personnel in 2020 found that about 4 percent of police chiefs were female and about 6 percent were Black.

In an interview Friday, Davis said her time advocating for police reform after Floyd’s death convinced her that she needed to set an example in swiftly firing the officers involved in Nichols’s beating. Police chiefs, she said, need to move quickly in these circumstances.

“We always say we want our communities to trust us; they will never trust us if we don’t treat officers like we treat citizens when they commit egregious acts,” she said. “So I thought it was important to not be a hypocrite about it. And these families deserve swift justice.”

Davis said she made another pointed decision in the case. In the past, she said, Memphis officers accused of wrongdoing have been able to review evidence before speaking with investigators. But Davis said she withheld the evidence from officers in this case.

“If officers were allowed to view video footage, then they would have fashioned their statements based on the video footage as opposed to their real recollection of what actually occurred,” she said.

During her June 2021 swearing-in, Davis called leading the Memphis police the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Davis described being “an impressionable young girl in the city of Atlanta,” growing up during “a tumultuous time in America, not unlike our current social climate of awareness and activism now.”

Davis said she learned about the deep divisions in America “between its citizens as well as between communities of color and police officers.” Davis also praised the department she was about to lead, saying it had established itself as “practitioners of policing best practices.” But there was more to be done, Davis said, and she pledged to help with that work.

“My expectation of the men and women of the department is that they continue delivering excellent service as they do today,” she said during her remarks, calling on Memphis police officers to be engaged with the community.

This week, Davis was grimly addressing people in Memphis and beyond under far different circumstances, pillorying five of her former officers and calling their behavior “heinous, reckless and inhumane.”

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Davis also suggested that the ongoing investigations into Nichols’s death might uncover further wrongdoing. The five fired officers were “directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols,” Davis said in her video statement. But she added that other officers were still being investigated for unspecified “department policy violations.”

Speaking on Friday morning, Davis also unfavorably compared the episode with the notorious Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King in 1991, which was videotaped and ignited intense outrage and unrest. At the time, Davis was early in her law enforcement career.

“I would say it’s about the same, if not worse,” she told CNN about the Nichols footage before its release.

Robert Klemko contributed to this report.

The death of Tyre Nichols

The latest: An official autopsy report shows Tyre Nichols died from “blunt force trauma,” lawyers say. The Nichols’s family is suing the city of Memphis and police officers over the brutal beating. The Justice Department will review the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policies and practices.

What has Memphis police footage revealed?: The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has sparked a complex dialogue on institutional racism in policing. Some of the most haunting videos came from SkyCop cameras.

Who was Tyre Nichols?: The 29-year-old father was pepper-sprayed, punched and kicked by Memphis cops after a January traffic stop. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days after his arrest. At Tyre Nichols’ funeral service, his family said they are focused on getting justice.

What is the Scorpion unit?: After the fallout from the brutal beating, Memphis police shut down the Scorpion unit. Each of the five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in Nichols’s death.