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Mayor Taps First Woman and Memphis Outsider to Lead Police Department

The next top cop of Memphis would, pending confirmation by the City Council in May, be both the first woman to occupy the position and also a rare external appointment.

Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, the current police chief in Durham, N.C., was revealed as Mayor Jim Strickland’s choice to replace Michael Rallings, who retired last week after a long career in Memphis law enforcement.

“She’s the right person to lead this department here in Memphis,” Strickland said in a video released Monday morning via Twitter. “She has an outstanding career in law enforcement as an officer and as a leader.”

Strickland praised her vision and her record for “building relationships with the community she serves.”

Davis started her career as a patrol officer in the Atlanta Police Department, according to a biographyposted on a Memphis city website. She rose through the ranks there, heading multiple departments before eventually becoming Deputy Chief.

She retired in 2016 to become Chief of Police in Durham, N.C., a city of 228,000 with a nearly even Black and white population.

Davis was the last of eight finalists identified for the job, which has for decades been awarded to officers from within the department. Davis was one of five candidates working in other cities.

Strickland alluded to critics who have long suggested that institutional reforms have been hampered by a lack of fresh perspectives.

“I think the vast majority has faith in the Memphis police department, but there are certain segments that don’t,” Strickland said in the video. “So, we’ve got to reach out to them and do a better job and I think Chief Davis is perfectly suited for that.”

Addressing the historic nature of being the first woman selected for the job, Davis responded with deference to her more than 30-year catalog of achievements.

“It’s an accomplishment for any female to lead that agency like Memphis,” she said. “But I would like for people to look at me as just as qualified as those males that have served the department and have brought their talents and their skill set. I can do the exact same thing.”   


Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.