Did she enforce the reform ordinances or didn’t she?
Variations of that question grew so intense before City Council recently that Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis took a bold stand.
“I’m not a liar,’’ she told the council earlier this month, countering contentions that she had ignored a policing reform package passed following the beating death last year of Trye Nichols. “I don’t have to be a liar. I’m trying to work to make sure that our police department rises to another level.’’
Davis has been on the hotseat ever since former Mayor Jim Strickland said as he was leaving office last month that his administration did not “operate in accordance with” the reform package that council passed last Spring. Those reforms include banning unmarked Memphis Police Department cars from making traffic stops and restricting “pretextual’’ stops for minor traffic infractions.
Strickland’s still-unexplained Dec. 29 letter to council members seems to suggest that his administration secretly opted to not enforce the measures, which he called “dangerous’’ and “illegal’’ legislative intrusions into powers reserved for the mayor.
Despite Strickland’s letter, Davis contends she faithfully “navigated the politics’’ while working behind the scenes to overcome internal resistance and see that her officers enforced the ordinances.
Internal police memos obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting indicate MPD leadership did take steps to enforce the ordinance in the months following its passage. Yet questions remain about the timing and effectiveness of that effort.
One memo suggests MPD may have waited until the October city elections to incorporate some reform provisions into internal policy and procedure directives. That memo is dated Oct. 5, the day voters selected new Mayor Paul Young who, in turn, was sworn in on Jan. 1.
Some council members remain intensely skeptical of Davis’s commitment to the reform ordinances, questioning whether she and her executive command staff were simply going through the motions.
“Policy and enforcement are two completely different things,’’ Council Chairman JB Smiley Jr. said in a phone interview with The Institute on Saturday, saying he’s convinced MPD has not enforced the reform ordinances. “I can have anything as policy. It doesn’t mean I’m going to follow that policy.’’
Smiley was on the prevailing side on a 7-6 vote on Jan. 9 to recommend rejecting Mayor Young’s nomination to re-appoint Davis as chief, a position she’s held since June 2021. A final council vote is expected Tuesday.
Smiley said he’s firm in his opposition to Davis. His opposition takes into account much more than the reform ordinance: It includes MPD’s failure to corral violent crime and dissatisfaction with Davis among rank-and-file officers and the larger Memphis community, he said.
“Overwhelmingly people say, ‘Hey, we have to do something else’ ’’ other than stick with Davis, he said.
It started smoothly enough.
Davis confidently stepped to the podium in the City Council chamber and enumerated a range of accomplishments: Hiring a “record breaking” 477 new police recruits over the past couple years, cutting overall crime “in half’’ over the past six months and expanding MPD’s community-oriented policing efforts, among other achievements.
“Thank you for giving me an opportunity to tell you about the work that I’ve done in the Memphis Police Department and that I hope to continue to do,’’ Davis said in concluding her opening statement during a 90-minute appearance before council.
Less than a minute after she finished, council members began questioning Davis about Strickland’s contention that the city administration had not complied with the reform ordinances.
“No mayor can decide unilaterally what we can do,’’ Smiley said as he addressed the former mayor’s Dec. 29 letter, first reported by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
As Smiley spoke, council staff members passed around a picture. Smiley said the photo depicts an MPD officer pulling over a brother of Tyre Nichols earlier this month for having his auto license tags in the wrong place – a pretextual stop outlawed by the reform ordinance.
Making his point about the traffic stop, the chairman turned his attention to Davis.
“Either you followed the ordinances or you did not, Chief Davis,’’ Smiley said. “Please answer that question.’’
“I absolutely can,’’ Davis answered. “First of all, our team started working on that ordinance at the exact time that the ordinance was passed.’’ Council passed the pretextual stop ordinance, the final piece of a larger reform package, on April 11.
Explaining that Strickland had recently called to apologize to her, Davis said the former mayor’s refusal to sign the ordinance didn’t hinder efforts within MPD to implement the new law.
“My team of individuals that are here have done robust work as it relates to the ordinance that was passed. We’ve had many internal conversations because of the fact that … there was conflicting opinions,’’ Davis said. “…My direction to my team was to move forward because the actual ordinance had passed. Although the signing of the ordinance was placed in limbo, the final signature of the mayor for us was not a determining factor. It was law at that time.’’
Davis said a key challenge to implementing the ordinance involved the belief among patrol officers that it conflicted with state law that allows police to stop vehicles with misplaced tags, a single broken taillight and other “secondary’’ violations outlawed by the reform ordinance.
Davis told the council that to help counter resistance, MPD legal advisers drafted a roll-call training bulletin to educate officers on the reforms. The attorneys then “went to all the precincts to talk about the ordinance,’’ she said.
“I was there at some of those sessions,’’ Davis said.
“This was not recently. This was when we first passed the ordinance. We knew that there was ambiguity for them because of the state law. And the questions that were being asked from them was that, ‘Do we not follow the state law?’ We explained to officers that you have to, you have to follow the ordinance. The ordinance has passed.’’
Records shed new light
A copy of that undated training bulletin released by Mayor Young’s Office to The Institute on Saturday spells out requirements of the reform ordinance including the limits on pretextual stops and prohibition of unmarked cars in traffic stops.
“The draft of the bulletin attached was created in June 2023,’’ City of Memphis Chief Communications Officer Penelope Huston wrote in an email. “The training and conversations related to the ordinance changes began in May 2023 – based on the draft ordinance from city council on city council site. The conversations and training continue.’’
In her appearance before the council, Davis placed the development of the training bulletin in “June or July.”
Davis did not agree to an interview despite requests made through the Mayor’s Office.
Council member Jerri Green, who voted against Davis’s reappointment, said Saturday she’s skeptical of Davis’s claims about the training bulletin.
“I don’t know that even if that bulletin went out, if they followed it,’’ she said. “Or if they followed through at roll call. Or if they just read it perfunctory. There’s no way to know…
“I don’t know … if it was said with a wink or if it was said and ignored. We just don’t know.”
One reason for council members’ skepticism involves a video circulating recently among police reform activists. That video includes a compilation of footage shot on the streets in which officers appear to be ignoring the reform ordinance’s pretextual and unmarked car restrictions.
In one undated clip, activist Hunter Demster argues with an officer about a traffic stop.
“You’re not supposed to do this. This is illegal,’’ Demster shouts at the officer who responds: “It’s state law.’’
Demster could not be reached for comment.
Another incident in the video involves an alleged traffic stop made by an officer in unmarked police car last May, about a month after passage of the reform ordinance.
MPD may not have acted decisively to attempt to enforce the ordinance until months later, according to an analysis of available records and Davis’s statements to the council.
A memo from Deputy Chief Michael Hardy to all MPD personnel dated Oct. 5, 2023, incorporates the reform package’s prohibition on unmarked cars. The policy and procedure update obtained by The Institute from a person familiar with MPD procedure states, in part:
“Officers may only use squad cars visibly marked with MPD decals and equipped with blue lights and siren to conduct traffic stops. Officers operating unmarked cars who need to make a traffic stop will summon a marked unit to conduct the stop absent exigent circumstances.’’
That memo was issued the same day as the Memphis city elections when voters selected Young as the new city mayor. Asked about the memo, Smiley noted that it came “after Strickland got out of the way.’’ It’s unclear, however, if there is a connection to the election or if the date of the memo is simply a coincidence.
The memo also differs from a document released Saturday by the Mayor’s Office. That document, a one-page section of MPD’s updated policy manual, contains slightly differing language regarding unmarked cars. Undated, it also lists other provisions of the council’s reform package that are not included in the Oct. 5 memo.
Reasons for the differences remain unclear.
The reform package included a data transparency component that required MPD to create a public-facing dashboard providing details of traffic stops that police made across the city. Davis told the council that her team has been working on the dashboard for months and that it should be launched this month.
Despite lingering confusion about the Strickland administration’s handling of the ordinance, Mayor Young told the council he will enforce it.
He also said his support of Davis is solid.
“I stand behind this appointment,’’ Young said before the council on Jan. 9. “Can we get the buy-in from the officers? Absolutely. Are there things that we’re going to have to do to gain trust from the officers and the community? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t make this recommendation if I didn’t believe that we can do it.
“…Make no mistake, all of our fates are riding on us getting this right. And as I said in the beginning, I am going to be accountable to you all. If we’re not getting the results that we need and we deserve, we’ll go another way. But right now, I firmly believe that we have the right person and I stand by it.’’