Thumbnail: The appointment of Cerelyn Davis as the new police chief in Memphis is historic in selecting an African Woman, the first outsider in 50 years.  More to the point, it could be historic in bringing new ideas and new voices into law enforcement strategies in Memphis.

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“She’s the right person to lead this department here in Memphis.”

With these words, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland made the historic appointment of an African American woman as police director – Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, chief of police in Durham, North Carolina.

It is the most promising announcement in the modern history of Memphis Police Department.  It brings new eyes and new ideas to a department that seems trapped in a culture that resists the kind of changes that can make it the police force needed by a major urban city.  It needs to be shaken up, modernized, and reevaluated.

It needs to develop its own strategies, drawing on national experts that Chief Davis has met and worked with in her law enforcement service but also as past president of the National Organization of Black law Enforcement Executives and board member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. 

It’s time for a change.  The Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission should not be the loudest voice and most involved organization when it comes to advising MPD and mapping out improvements, and hopefully, her background will open up new avenues to innovation.

Police killings should not be summarily ignored by the attorney general’s office, and she can have influence over that as well. 

Shaking Up Culture

Culture eats policy for lunch, so a priority for Chief Davis is to address the behaviors and ideas that have calcified from almost 50 years of police chiefs being chosen from inside MPD.

In a city accustomed to how “national searches” regularly pick someone from Memphis, it’s refreshing that a mayor not known for taking risks actually did conduct a national search and selected someone who wasn’t part of the system already. While the process was lacking in its unwillingness to seriously allow public involvement and in complete transparency, it does appear that it nonetheless ended in the right place. 

Chief Davis testified in 2020 to a Senate committee that choke holds should be banned and a national database for officer misconduct should be created, and she acknowledged that “time and time again we (law enforcement) have failed.”  If these are indications of the approach she will bring to Memphis, she could be the most important chief in the modern history of the Memphis Police Department.

After a year in which a record was set for murders in Memphis with 332, there’s little question that a different approach is needed.  Chief Davis advocates for a “holistic approach” addressing violent crime, particularly aggravated assaults because each of those incidents could have produced a homicide. 

Violent crime in 2020 was almost 20% higher in Memphis and about 15% in Shelby County than in 2006 when the Crime Commission developed the “Safe Community Plan.” Aggravated assault is up 71% in Memphis and 62% in Shelby County when compared to 2006.

Put simply, we need more intellectual capital brought to crime prevention in Memphis and Shelby County because it’s obvious that doing what we’ve been doing is not yielding the kind of results that are needed.

Reports on her experience in Atlanta have not noted that she headed up the Police Department’s Code Enforcement Section, where she led the team that was fighting against neighborhood decay, absentee landlords, and violations of the city’s housing code, graffiti ordinance and commercial maintenance and industrial code. 

That too equips her with an added and unique perspective about the results of disinvestment in Memphis neighborhoods and that too will inform her law enforcement strategies.

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To give an indication of how important this point in time can be for Memphis, here’s a blog post from June 25, 2020:

It’s been 48 years since someone from outside Memphis has been appointed director of Memphis Police Department. 

It’s time to break that streak.

My last blog post was about how choices are being made with each decision but the powers-that-be don’t often see them that way.  As a result, we have settled for incremental improvements that have done little to correct the underlying factors that are a drag on our community’s progress – income inequality, the immoral child poverty rates, absence of an economic development agenda that stresses quality rather than cheapness, and malignant systemic racism.

Memphis and Shelby County are presented with many choices that are pressing and long overdue for action.  Their full impact may not be felt for some time. 

Then, there are choices that are immediate and their impact can be felt immediately.  One of these choices offers an immediate opportunity is the naming of a permanent director for MPD. 

When Is More And More Enough

In the past, Memphis mayors have talked about a national search but have looked within MPD to fill the director’s position and it showed.

Because of it, directors were products of a culture that breeds ingrown solutions that don’t become best practices for other law enforcement agencies or become the breakthroughs needed to shake up business as usual at MPD.

In other words, choices are limited by a cultural context that sets lower expectations and limits possibilities.  Maybe that’s why, while some other cities are reducing the number of police officers and seeing crime rate declines, Memphis returns time and time again to the simplistic answer that crime can be solved by hiring more and more police.

If we had a dollar for every time City Hall, MPD officers, and the Memphis/Shelby Crime Commission called for more police officers, there would be money for the investments needed by so many Memphis neighborhoods. 

At a point when 40% of City of Memphis general fund expenditures is spent by Memphis Police Department, people can be forgiven for wondering when enough will be enough.  The Strickland Administration’s goal of 2,500 police officers continues to be its gold standard.  I’m unaware that the report setting that standard was ever released

Elusive LInks

Around the same time, a different report, this one from the Police Executive Research Forum, included several recommendations for improving MPD, which redrew its precinct maps and ignored everything else. 

Interestingly, at roughly the same time, City of Memphis’ own Five-Year Strategic Fiscal Management Plan by David Eichenthal of The PFM Group, Rick Masson Consulting, and V. Lynn Evans, Community Capital, said:

The link between the number of police officers and crime rate reduction is, at best, elusive. Different studies have found different relationships and data suggest variation by city. Other approaches related to crime prevention, prosecution and punishment may have as much, if not more, of an impact on crime reduction and often come at a lower cost than sworn police officers.  For instance, the following alternatives to additional sworn police personnel, when implemented and managed properly, have shown significant policy and fiscal impacts:

*  Teen courts and family-based therapy for juvenile offenders

*  Restorative justice for low risk offenders

*  Employment and job training for prior offenders

*  Intensive supervision

*  Community-based drug treatment programs

A Different Approach

Memphis’ own report added: “Increasing the number of sworn officers – as Memphis did – is not the only method to reduce violent crime. Between 2006 and 2011, seven US cities of 500,000 or more residents achieved violent crime rate reductions of greater than 25 percent – a quarter more than Memphis. No city with 500,000 or more residents had an increase in officers per 100,000 residents greater than Memphis, and three other cities of 500,000 or more residents achieved violent crime rate decreases with a reduction in officers per capita.

“Within Tennessee, Nashville achieved a 22.7 percent reduction in violent crime between 2006 and 2011 – and slightly reduced its number of sworn officers per 100,000 residents. During this time, other cities decreased FTEs and sworn officers per 100,000 residents and achieved greater reductions in violent crime.”

The report also suggested that the number of sworn officers in Memphis was bloated as a result of the reduction of less expensive civilian positions and replaced by officers.  According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, MPD had 1,975; 1,990; 2,056; and 2,098 sworn officers for the years 2005 to 2008.  Those also happened to be the years when the crime rate began a downward slide.

The point is that conversations about the future of Memphis Police Department and the appointment of its director are locked within a reinforcing loop of data supplied by entities that have vested interest in justifying more police.

History Lessons

Back to the original point of this blog post, it’s an appropriate time for someone with fresh perspectives into police services, a proven record of positive community relationships, and a record of innovation.  The best way to guarantee this will happen is with the appointment of someone who’s not in and of MPD. 

The easy decision is for the mayor to appoint acting director Michael Rallings.  After all, that’s what mayors have done all the way back to Mayor Willie W. Herenton.  Time and time again, despite announcement after announcement that there would be a national search for the best possible police director, in the end, the appointment went to the interim or acting director each time.

The last appointment of someone who wasn’t part of the Memphis Police Department was E. Winslow (Buddy) Chapman, who took office in 1976 and served until 1983.  He noticed that the high school graduates being hired could not write at an eighth grade level so he started a curriculum for the police academy.  A year after he was hired, he instituted a policy that police recruits would be required to have completed two years of college.

Mr. Chapman followed U.S. Marine Brigadier General Jay W. Hubbard who was appointed in 1972 and served until 1975.  He is the only person hired as director who was not a resident of Memphis.  He brought a firm approach to the discipline of the department and a command presence that refused to suffer fools kindly.

Since 1983, director after director has come from inside Memphis Police Department.  Regardless of who applies for the job, the fundamental question which they should answer is: “Do we need more police or better police?”

The Usual Trope

We’ve heard a lot about how Camden reformed law enforcement with an emphasis on community policing which reduced its murder rate by 67% (although it’s still five times the national average).  However, the real lesson from Camden is that big changes are possible, even if a police department is corrupt and there has never been a greater need for police accountability and public confidence.

A February 12, 2019, collaboration between the Marshall Project, the Commercial Appeal, and USA Today in a story written by Simone Weichselbaum and Wendi Thomas had the headline: “More cops.  Is it the answer to fighting crime? Declining numbers of cops nationwide worry big city officials but experts say there is little evidence that more cops equals less crime.

The story said: “Memphis is unusual in taking money from the private sector to pay cops, but it reflects a popular trope that blames shrinking police forces for violence.  Jeff Sessions, during his short tenure as attorney general, played that theme before police audiences, and it has become routine for national police leaders to complain that the politics of Black Lives Matter and viral videos of police killing civilians, along with low pay, have made it harder to recruit and retain qualified officers.

“Data shows that the raw numbers of police have declined over the past five years, and the rate of police officers per 1,000 residents has been dropping for two decades.  At the same time, the violent crime has also dropped.”

That fact suggests one thing that is never referred to when the mantra for more police officers is chanted here: Is the decline in crime in Memphis just the result of more and more officers or is it a local reflection of the national trend line?

With the inevitable pushback from the Memphis Police Association to anything that sounds like it might shake up the status quo in which it has outsized impact, it becomes harder for Mayor Jim Strickland to do something that is now considered revolutionary in Memphis: bringing in someone that isn’t a product of the very department that person needs to improve.

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