Nearly 200 Saint Leo University students, alumni, faculty, staff, and members of the public gathered in-person and online to hear Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis talk about her experiences as a leader on Tuesday, February 22. Davis, who was named as the Memphis Police Department’s first female police chief in 2021 and is a Saint Leo University alumna, spoke about the people and events that have influenced her career and how she leads with a service mindset.
“It’s not about you, it’s about helping other people,” said Davis when asked about what has contributed to her success as a leader.
Davis’ appearance was a part of Saint Leo University’s Mission-Driven Leaders: Conversations on Purpose program, which featured an interactive, interview-style conversation with Davis, led by Saint Leo University Vice President of Community Engagement and Innovation Dr. Mark Gesner. Saint Leo University students who are studying criminal justice had the opportunity to attend the event and engage with Davis in a small group conversation later in the day.
Davis is a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the matter of police reform in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. She has since been featured on “Good Morning America,” CNN, and other networks as a subject matter expert on this important topic.
Davis graduated from Saint Leo University’s center at Fort McPherson in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice. Her career in law enforcement spans more than 35 years and includes several leadership positions while working for the Atlanta Police Department and serving as the chief of police for the City of Durham (NC). In 2008, Davis was selected by Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, as one of 80 women for the O White House Leadership Project, Women Rule! The group, dubbed “Tomorrow’s Leaders,” benefited from meeting with some of the country’s trailblazers, which helped prepare Davis for her future.
As one of six children growing up in a military family in which her father was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Army’s Special Forces at Fort Bragg, NC, Davis said patriotism was ingrained in her, as was civic duty.
Following in her father’s footsteps, she served four years in the U.S. Air Force. Then, after a childhood spent watching police shows, she joined the Atlanta Police Department. She was one of 11 women in her class, and the only one to graduate. “We were ready for law enforcement, but law enforcement was not ready for us,” she said of being a female officer.
Now as a leader, Davis strives to make sure everyone—no matter the race, gender, or ethnicity—has the opportunity to excel.
She told students, “Never turn down an opportunity,” and to be ready to “walk through that door.” Davis also cited the advice of one of her Saint Leo professors told her, “Learn something about everything.”
Taking chances and taking risks is crucial to success, too, Davis noted. “And not being afraid of being by yourself,” she said. “Eagles fly alone. In order to be successful, you sometimes have to be willing to be by yourself.”
Having mentors and being a mentor also is important, Davis said. For her, Beverly Harvard, the first Black female chief of the Atlanta Police Department, was one of those who shaped her career. “She was telling me that I could achieve what she had,” Davis said. “A lot of who I am is because of the people who believed in me.”
As the former president of NOBLE and now as a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Davis has been at the forefront of examining police reform and creating national standards, what she calls “checks and balances.”
She is an advocate for using the position as a law enforcement officer to influence the community. Engaging with those they serve can lead to less crime, Davis said. However, public safety officials should not shoulder all of the responsibility.
“It’s important to have a myriad of diverse individuals working on change,” Davis added. “Sometimes on task forces, sometimes the voices of the people who are impacted the most are not heard. We have to look at ‘have we brought the right people in the room?’ We have to get through the uncomfortable conversations.”
As for what she looks for in an employee, the leader of the Memphis Police Department said, “Anybody who really is focusing on community service.” While some are attracted to law enforcement for the blue lights, sirens, and “toys,” she said, “A lot of what an officer does is community activities like helping at an accident. I look for a person who understands this.”
Davis noted that being successful can take a lot of sacrifice. “Anything you want to achieve, you will have to make sacrifices,” she said. Davis said when she was earning her bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo, she would keep her books in her car to read when she had a free moment.
As a leader who lives her mission, Davis reminded the students, “Know that there is nothing that will keep you from your goals if you stay focused.”
About Mission-Driven Leaders: Conversations on Purpose
As a values-based institution, Saint Leo University seeks to inspire and engage its students, faculty, staff, and the greater community in conversations about the significance of mission-driven leadership. The Mission-Driven Leaders: Conversations on Purpose program will feature four to five diverse guest leaders each year who have experience in leading with purpose and making a difference in their professions and society at large.