Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland spoke Friday with The Commercial Appeal about the leadership of Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis.
Davis and the Memphis Police Department have faced increased scrutiny after the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx employee and father, who died three days after being brutally beaten, Tased and pepper sprayed by police officers.
Since then, the department swiftly fired five officers who have since been charged with second-degree murder in Nichols' death.
The SCORPION Unit, of which the five were members, has been disbanded.
More:She came to Memphis a 'rising star.' Why Chief CJ Davis is facing her toughest test yet.
Strickland on Friday announced the city has contracted with the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services ("COPS"), through the Collaborative Reform Initial Technical Assistant Center ("CRI-TAC") program and the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP) to conduct a review of the Memphis Police Department, particularly pertaining to its special units and use of force.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why was Chief Davis your selection as MPD chief?
A: "What struck me is she was a natural leader on crime reduction and police reform. She's a leader. I thought she had great experience in a very large city like Atlanta and a medium sized city in Durham. Memphis kind of fits in between there. Those are the reasons and I am sure there are many more."
Q: What did you task her with when hiring her?
A: "Crime reduction. Let me put this all in perspective. From 2017-2018 crime went down, 2018-2019 crime went down. I took my oath of office for my second term January 1, 2020, we'd had a couple years of crime reduction and increasing police officers. Then the pandemic hit and violent crime skyrocketed across the country and in Memphis. With that backdrop, the number one goal is to reduce crime. There are many parts of that and the police aren't the only entity involved in that, but that's the one we were hiring for. … After struggling with a couple years of the pandemic last year we did reduce violent crime. Not enough. We're certainly not having a banner that says mission accomplished, but we're certainly headed in the right direction. Last year we followed another national trend, which is car thefts."
Q: Today, how would you characterize the job Davis has done?
A: "I think she's done a good job. Violent crime has gone down. … Now we have to keep working there, but also respond to this huge increase in property crime that we're seeing. We lost police officers during the pandemic like most police forces around the country did and we're starting the rebound from that. She's been a leader in trying to get better pay and better benefits to police officers. We agreed last year with the police association for a 5% raise for the current year and a 5% raise for next year, a $15,000 sign on bonus for new officers, a real aggressive marketing campaign to bring in officers. She's been leading that. Being a police chief of any major city in the country is really a difficult job. During the pandemic it got even more difficult, but I think she's been a good leader."
Q: On the Tyre Nichols case, Chief Davis was praised for swift action in terms of firing the five officers. Then, she received some pushback for not releasing the identity of a white officer who was also suspended. What are your thoughts on how she's handled the situation?
A: "I think she's done a very good job. She was concerned from the very get-go when a summary of the incident did not make sense to her. She asked to see the video very quickly and informed me that she was very troubled by what she was learning. It's her leadership that said we are gonna do what Memphis City Government has never done and what most city governments across the country don't do and that is a thorough but very quick employment evaluation.
"She led in the fact that we had to do this fast. I think that's what Mr. (Ben) Crump noted at the funeral earlier this week that she was really a model in how we got that done. I think she prioritized right. The five officers who physically assaulted Tyre were the first five investigations and then she's moved on to the investigations on the other employees who were at the site. I think she's done it in a very professional way, in a very thorough way and very quickly, and she's also said we need an outside entity to do an investigation on the way the police department operates, especially these special units and our use of force."
Q: Another criticism is that Chief Davis created SCORPION, which has of course been disbanded. And, that unit mirrored one she oversaw in Atlanta, Red Dog, which was also disbanded after accusations of police brutality. How do you respond to people who say SCORPION should never have been created in the first place?
A: "First of all, every major city has a unit similar to SCORPION, which is different than the one you talked about earlier, Red Dog. The Red Dog operation was different than the SCORPION. Interestingly, people who say they're similar never give particulars on how they are similar. Not every special unit is the same."
Q: What was the departmental structure with regard to SCORPION?
A: "There were definitely leaders in between (Davis) and the actual officers on the street. I don't know the details."
Q: You are terming out. What do you think Chief Davis will need to do to ensure that she remains Memphis' police chief even when a new mayor comes on board?
A: "I'm not worried about that and I'm not sure she's worried about that. What we're worried about is short-term trying to do the right thing with respect to bringing justice for Tyre, doing the right thing in an evaluation of our processes to make sure this does not happen again and maintaining the morale of great officers that are remaining on the force and trying to reduce crime."
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Q&A: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on Chief CJ Davis' leadership