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Saint Leo 360 Podcast

Episode 58: A Conversation with Cerelyn Davis, a Saint Leo Alumna & Memphis Police Chief

Posted by Greg Lindberg on April 28, 2022
Episode 58: A Conversation with Cerelyn Davis, a Saint Leo Alumna & Memphis Police Chief

Download Episode 58 Transcript

Speaker 1:
Saint Leo 360. A 360 degree overview of the Saint Leo University community.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Hi there. And thanks for tuning into another episode of the Saint Leo 360 podcast. My name is Greg Lindberg. Here on this episode of the podcast we are featuring a recording from the mission driven leaders, conversations on purpose series here at Saint Leo University. This particular recording is from the first installment of this series, which was an event held back in February. This event features Sarah Lynn Davis, who is the chief of the Memphis police department, as well as a 1998 alumni of Saint Leo University. So let's go ahead and turn things over to Dr. Jeff Senese, the president of Saint Leo university, who is joined by Dr. Mark Gesner the vice president of community engagement and innovation here at Saint Leo. And it was Dr. Senese who provided some opening remarks. And then Dr. Gesner gets into the discussion with chief Davis.

Dr. Jeffrey Senese:
So we have a nationally recognized alumni here. So chief Davis has spoken all across the country. Has been on the national news and so forth. There are about 4,000 chiefs of police in the United States. About 9% of those are female, about 8% of those are African American. It's very unique to have the honor that St Leo has, and her honor to be of police of a major city in the United States, Memphis, Tennessee. And it's amazing that she took the time to come here and speak with us. 35 years. So students think about that 35 years from now, you could be the chief of a major city. The reason we're bringing our guest leader here, she's not a guest lecturer, our guest leader here is because you're going to demonstrate to you, the chief wants to demonstrates you what's possible in your future.

Dr. Jeffrey Senese:
Pretty amazing. Chief does policing in the right way and has led policing in the right way, which means it's research based. Which it's database. Which means you're looking at all sorts of technology and ways to improve the way you respond to your community. On top of that, very community oriented in terms of police, building relationships with the community. You'll hear that I'm certain. The chief started as a patrol officer in Atlanta. Dr. Neely, I noticed in the back who was also with the Atlanta PD, but that's the way you start in policing. That's how everyone starts is you work in the restaurant industry, you start washing dishes maybe and work your way up to being a cook and so forth. Policing starts by patrol. You understand policing best if you understand what you're lying officers are confronting in the community, and chief started that way in Atlanta.

Dr. Jeffrey Senese:
She commanded a special operations unit, S.W.A.T's and gangs and all sorts of other special operations. Again, I would argue that that's pretty unusual for a African American person, not in some cities, but a female to be charge of S.W.A.T. That's unusual in the United States, least in my experience and I've only worked with 20 or so police departments, never seen that in any of those 20. She led to use using video and creating a network of cameras within the city where this sort of, they call in sometimes passive policing, where you can see what's going on in the city without having to patrol there and take advantage of what exists in the city. So, chief is very much an innovator and has been on the innovative edge of policing in the United States, in some of the biggest cities.

Dr. Jeffrey Senese:
After leaving Atlanta, she was chief of police for Durham, North Carolina and in 2021, she was appointed of chief of police of Memphis. Chief is a graduate of the national academy at the FBI. That's a big deal, to be a graduate of the FBI national academy, as well as PERF training, Police Executive Research forum is a executive training Institute that's existed since I think about the seventies, something like that. Where it's experts in policing and policing leadership, Chief could probably teach in PERF but you get the idea. They come together and they really elevate their leadership practice in policing. A few more things that I want to highlight. Chief has testified before this Senate and even recently with all the situations we have going on in the United States, they're looking to chief Davis as a leader in that area, helping with police use of force and police response.

Dr. Jeffrey Senese:
She's been on Good Morning America, been recognized by Oprah Winfrey and the city of Atlanta among many other. So when I was thinking about chief Davis last night, when I was driving home, I was reminded of a quote by James Baldwin, who's one of my favorite authors. 'Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.' Davis is doing it. Thank you so much for being here chief and we really appreciate it.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Wondering if we can start the conversation with a little bit about your path. You can share some of the trajectory and key influences along the way.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Okay. Well, thank you again. Thank you, Dr. Mark Gesner. Certainly Dr... We have had a wonderful time over the last 24 hours, just trying to get to know each other a little bit more, and it is just a blessing to be here on this campus. One of the best things that could have ever happened in my life was Saint Leo University. And I'm not just saying that. My experience here was part of the trajectory in my career, but I'm one of six children to a military family. My father was a career army man, and he was one of the first African-American men to be accepted into special forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, something that I'm very proud of. And I think a lot of my father's success in the military is part of who I've become. Someone who has had just ingrained in a sense of patriotism to our country, a sense of civic duty, because my parents raised us that way.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And early on, as a teenager, my mother used to think something was wrong with me because on Saturday mornings, I was always watching cop shows. Today, maybe law and order and cops and some of those but during my time, it was 'Hill Street Blues'. [inaudible 00:07:54] some heads nod, you babies don't understand. 'Miami Vice'. Okay? So I was infatuated with criminal justice at the time. And I didn't know that just that level of being interested in those types of shows would really be part of who I would become, literally.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So being raised in a military family, we traveled a lot. My dad would always travel ahead of us and he would always go and set up house. My mother was a housekeeper, almost unheard of these days because most mothers are working too, but my father would not allow my mother to work. He wanted her to take care of his six kids and she did that. And I would argue to say that my mother was probably more of a soldier than my dad was, because we gave her a time of it. And we lived in Okinawa. My sister was born in Germany. We spent time in Europe as well. And we settled in the Atlantic area. That's where my mother and father were from. And I decided early on that I wanted a career in law enforcement, even though I took a detour first, I spent four years in the Air Force. Any Air Force alumni here anywhere? No? No Veterans? Army veterans? I know plenty of army veterans, probably. Oh, okay. Yeah. Thank you for your service. All right.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
But anyway, my parents didn't want me to go in law enforcement. They said, "We don't want that. We don't want that for you. You should be a teacher or a doctor or something like that." But as I went into the Air Force, I spent four years just moving to different places in the state of Texas. I wanted to see the world. I grew up seeing the world, but my time in the Air Force... Was Brook's Air Force base in Austin, Texas. Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. And then Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. That was it. I said, "I'm going back to Atlanta." So I got out of the service and I returned to the Atlanta area and joined the Atlanta police department. And at that time in my career, there were very few women in law enforcement. And especially there were few women that were in leadership positions in law enforcement. And there was a push by not just our city, but around the country to hire more women in law enforcement, there were grant funds for recruiting women.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
My recruit class, there were 11 women in my class, which was really unusual, because that was really a male dominated career. So there were 11 women in our class and out of a total of 37, out of those 11 women, I was the only one to graduate. There, some good women in that class, we were ready for law enforcement, but law enforcement wasn't ready for us. Okay? And we made the numbers, we hired X amount of women, but the real story was how many of those women actually made it through processes and actually became police officers. And so I think my experiences early on made me really realize how important it was, especially as I became a supervisor to make sure that I was in a position to ensure equity amongst not just women in the career but anybody who wanted to excel. Create an environment that really fostered moving up and have equal opportunities, whether was special assignments or whether it was leadership positions as well.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And so much of my earlier career, I did everything that guys did. I was on the streets, as I said, I worked [inaudible 00:12:27]. I worked mounted patrol. I worked in so many different environments that helped to develop me as a leader today, I had mentors that told me, "Never turn down an opportunity because when the door swings open, it may not swing open again, be ready to walk through it, never turn down an opportunity." And I remember one of my professors at Saint Leo said, "Learn something about everything." That stuck with me throughout my entire career. I didn't understand it at the time, but he said, "Learn something about everything." And so it's been 35 years. I left Atlanta after 30 years, I left there as deputy chief. And at the time, I wasn't sure why I was taking on another assignment outside of my comfort zone, but that's another thing about leadership for me, it's about taking chances and taking risk and not being afraid to be by yourself.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
One thing that I tell my staff and my officers on a regular basis, that Eagles fly alone. If you don't remember anything else, Eagles fly alone. You never see Eagle flying around with another Eagle, do you? You see chickens hanging out together, but you always see Eagles flying alone. And once you get that in your head, that in order to be successful, sometimes you have to be by yourself. I don't want to take up too much time, but just wanted to give you an opportunity to know a little bit about who I am. My father who, like I said, was a career military person and was an advocate for making sure that we educated ourselves and continued to excel. He passed away last year. And after raising us and still being a part of our lives for so many years, is these types of opportunities that he instilled in us too. That it's not always about you, it's about what you can do for other people. And if you keep that in the forefront of your mind, that it's not about you and it's about supporting and helping other people then there's no way that you can't succeed. There's no way that you can't succeed. We're always conscious about our ourselves and it takes time to really change who you are when it comes to being focused on what you could deposit in someone else's life too.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Thank you for the introduction and giving us a sense of the path. You told me about a couple of influences over the last... Many influences. But one of your professors at Saint Leo? And also, I'm not sure if it was a chief or someone in the department, when you had some books along with you on the ride.? Could you talk about that real quick?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So one of my influences was a professor at Saint Leo, Bart King. And some of you may be familiar with the name Bart King. He was in the Atlanta campus. But not just Bart, as a professor, but also one of my previous chiefs, she was the first African American female chief in a major city country. And for me and many of my colleagues, it was like she was a rockstar. Anytime she was around, she was on the cover magazines. And being a first and especially during that time, it just made all of us realize that can happen, anything was possible.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And one thing about her, her name was Beverly Harvard. And she went on to work in DC and several other assignments. But when she was retiring, I was really sad that she was leaving, because she took time to speak to me and encourage me. And I noticed that she spent more time with me than she did with some of my other colleagues that were in higher ranks than I was. And she would always send me to various special assignments, to go and represent her and receive awards on her behalf and whatnot. And I didn't understand it at the time, but she was getting me ready. She was putting me in environments that would help me to be ready for what was ahead.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And the day that she was actually leaving. It was her retirement day. And she had staff walking down the hallway and they were carrying her boxes. And everybody was just really excited for her. She stopped in the hallway and I think she could see it on my face, that I was happy and sad at the same time. And she held my hands. And she said to me, in a way that I'll never forget, she said, "CJ, you have what it takes." She said, "CJ, you have what it takes." And the power of words when she said that, I knew exactly what she meant. At that time, I was a Lieutenant, but she was basically telling me that I could do what she had done, that I could achieve the exact same thing that she could. And here I am today, I'm a chief of police, twice now. And a lot of who I am is because of those people that planted seeds in me to make me believe in myself and saw in me what I didn't see in myself at the time.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
One of the things that is a thread through our mission driven leader series is the mission and the values that's based on. So when you think about your actions today as chief, how did they relate to your values? How would you make the connection?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Well, I don't separate the two. I go to work every day and my staff hear me say all the time, "The uniform is what I do. It's not who I am." And I mean that, because we all have titles and sometimes you get... Titles get in the way of allowing us to be human sometimes. And my values are embedded in who I've been all my life because of the upbringing that I had, my parents. We were in church on Sunday morning. We were giving back to the community and serving in so many different ways and it became who we were as adults. And so now as a chief, I use the position that I'm in to help influence the work that I have to do in community. And it helps to influence the values and the philosophy of our department, that if we get the community engagement piece right, then some of the crime issues will fix themselves.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Sometimes we invest more on the tail end, in responding and reacting as opposed to dealing with systemic problems in our communities. And so in the position that I'm in, in the city of Memphis, there's a great need for additional work in our community. And a lot of it can't be done by police. A lot of has to be done in a proactive way where the influence of our officers and the work that they do with young people and building relationships with community members is more important than the response to calls and making arrest. And I tell folks all the time, we cannot arrest our way out of this nation's problems. If we could, in my career, it's been 35 years of arresting, arresting and we still have problems. But until we focus on some of those root causes in our community, it can't be just the police focusing on that. It has to be other entities, other government entities, other civic organizations to really just mobilize and come them together to help impact change.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And some of the changes, especially for young people, because a lot of our young people they are in environments that it is not their fault. You heard the saying that, "There aren't bad kids. Sometimes there're bad parents." And it's not necessarily bad parents. It is people who are products of their environment and products of unfortunate circumstances and situations. And I think leading with a heart, I tell folks, I shoot from the heart. You hear the saying, "I shoot from hip." But I shoot from the heart. And when you do that and your staff see you and you demonstrate what it looks like, and you're true to what you say. It really impacts the staff too. They know what my philosophies are. They know we're going to be about being proactive in doing good work in our community. And unfortunately, sometimes we do have to make arrests, but if we can work on the front end to prevent some of that, to me, that's the ideal situation.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
I have to say from my biased lens of vice president of community engagement [inaudible 00:22:50] your words resonate a lot. And it's building relationships. You told me a lot about being out in the community in different ways. One of the core values that we have here, talking around before you see our Benedictine values, is excellence. We're focused on the value of excellence. How do you hear that? How do you incorporate that into your work?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
I mentioned it last night at dinner. We had a great dinner and I kept thinking about... I keep mentioning my dad, a lot of who I am as my dad. He's here in this room right now. I know he is. But when I think of excellence, I think of growing up in an environment where my father was a training instructor at one point in time in the army. And when he came home, he was a training instructor at home. He was the guy yelling sometimes at the troops and he was yelling at us too. But we took it in stride, because it became who we were as young people and everything we did, we tried to do it in a way that made him proud.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
He was one that never allowed us to half to do anything. I don't care if it was washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, he would come behind us and say, "You didn't do a good job at that. You= left some stuff over here in the corner, you got wrinkles in your bed, fix your pillow." And now I'm so meticulous, I'm him and my staff are like, "You can't pull anything over on the chief, she's going to look at it up and down." But excellence to me is what we all should strive for. And I have this saying that, "We're never as good as we think we are." We all think we're rock stars, but we really aren't rock stars. We always have room for improvement. We always have room to learn more. Be career learners.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
I'm a career learner. I'm always trying to learn something about everything, as my Saint Leo professor said in this basket weaving, you never know. And I remember when I was working at the airport in Atlanta, I was assistant commander there at the airport. And there was this class that was being offered to executives at the airport. It wasn't really a law enforcement class, but it was for some of the other individuals that aspired to be executives, working in an airport environment. And it was through the American association of airport executives. And everybody said, "What a difficult class it was like son. Oh my goodness, if you go do that class you're going to be pulling your hair out." And I decided I wanted to sign up for this class so I can get certified in AAAE. And what did I do that for?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So I go through this program and it was a nine week program. And going through that program, I learned everything from the amount of feet is required for a plane to take off of a runway to, what those numbers meant on the different runways. And it was the most enlightening experience for me. And I became certified in AAAE. And now when I get on a plane, it's a totally different experience. Everybody else is putting in their earplugs and trying to figure out what movie they're going to watch or what they're going to play on their computer or whatever. I'm looking out the window to make sure that the pilot is acknowledging the safety zone and that those numbers that are out there, I'm saying myself, "Okay, that's 360, that's the lane to the east and that's the lane to the west and that's the lane to the north."

Dr. Mark Gesner:
So let me ask. We all learned something today. I don't know how many of but the AAA-

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
E.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
E Is-

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
The air, the Association of Airport Executives. American Association of Airport Executives. AAAE.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
That's yeah. Okay. Just want to make sure. And so in learning a bit about something and all these various experience, you chose a role to switch gears a little bit to lead major national association, in black law enforcement association.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Yes.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Why did you choose to devote time to that? And why was that so important?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Well, I was a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, Executives, NOBLE. And I'm also on the board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. And it didn't dawn on me until later on in my career, how important it was to represent my career field in a way that influences policy and change. And I didn't realize how important it was for my colleagues, especially my colleagues that don't look like me, for me to be on the board so that they could hear a different perspective of what we should or should not be doing in this particular career field, in law enforcement. And when you think in terms of what has occurred in the last couple years on the heels of various critical incidents that we're still trying to get beyond and behind, and we continue to see critical incidents.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
It's important to have a myriad of a diverse group of individuals communicating with each other and working on what change looks like. What does reform would really look like, and what are we doing it for? Are we doing it for us? Or are we really doing it for the community? And sometimes the community voice isn't heard in our conversations, and as we put together task force, and as we work on policies to change, sometimes the voice of the people who are impacted the most is not heard. And so my participation for me has been important because sometimes I yanked the coattails of some of my colleagues basically to say, "Is this what we need to do? Or is this what we want to do? And have we brought the right people in the room?" Sometimes it's bringing young people in the room. Sometimes it's bringing activists in the room. Sometimes it's having uncomfortable conversations, but if we all want to get to a place where we are working better together, we have to get through some of those uncomfortable conversations.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
We talked, at the dinner, also about activism and some of the influences for you, including [inaudible 00:29:58] some things and hearing stories from like Coretta Scott King. And others. I wonder, that story, that you might share your connection to that?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned that I lived in Atlanta as a young person. I was probably in the fourth or fifth grade when my father retired from the military, so I went through high school in the Atlanta area too. But there was a sense of pride, not just as a law enforcement person, but as a community member in the city of Atlanta, being from the home of the Civil Rights Movement. I had the opportunity, not just to really just read out stories and hear about what happened, I worked with many of the civil rights icons in the city of Atlanta and worked very closely with Bernice King and Martin Jr. and Andrew Young, who was the mayor in Atlanta, who was such a great storyteller.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
He would take time... Because if you think about it during the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King had his lieutenants, if you will, those individuals that a lot of us have heard their names over and over again; John Lewis, Andy Young and a lot of those individual came out of the Atlanta area. And we used to ask Andrew Young, why was it that... He was one that was very close to Martin, but he was never one that went to jail. And it was because Andy said, "Martin never allowed him to be in the environment of..." If they knew that something was going to happen, where they would be in an encounter, they wouldn't allow Andy to be involved in that because Andrew Young was the one that had the law degree. Andrew Young was the one that made sure that everybody was taken care of and to help them get out of jail and so on. But he used to tell us all of these different stories about his experiences.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And as a police officer and a law enforcement professional I was in charge of many of those activities, especially working special operations. Every year during King weekend, we had had to coordinate celebrities coming in town, clergy from all over the world, delegates from Congress coming to town and Coretta Scott King when she passed away, that was one of my assignments. One of my assignments was to coordinate the home going service and the security for Coretta Scott King. And that was probably one of the most memorable experiences for me, because at that time we had 120 delegates from Congress to fly down, we had to coordinate them coming into the city. Some came in private vehicles, but it was so many, we decided, "Let's work on bringing them in on a military hop into Dobbins Air Force base." 120 flew into Dobbins Air Force base, we coordinated buses to get to the church for the funeral. And once they arrived, motorcycle escorts, everything that was needed for that special event, when they arrived at...

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
That time, that was the first I saw what was soon to be at some point, Barack Obama, he was there along with every sitting president at that time, or once sitting president was still alive. Jimmy Carter, The Bushes were there, Clinton, you name it. Everybody wanted to be a part of this funeral service. And the night before was awake. That took place at old Ebenezer Baptist Church. Old Ebenezer Baptist Church was the church that Martin spoke in on a regular basis. His father, daddy King, mama King, and the entire family were members of Ebenezer Baptist Church. A very old church but certainly a staple in that community. And so Coretta's body was laying in state on a rainy, rainy night. And I mean, it was raining so hard, we just knew people were not going to be standing out in the rain but the line went up Auburn avenue, which was at least a half a mile. And then up Peachtree Street, all you could see was a sea of umbrellas. Until 12 o'clock midnight, people were still outside.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
But one of the most memorable experiences during that time too, was Oprah Winfrey who had a very close relationship with Coretta Scott King, so much so that she actually bought a condominium, the top of the condominium in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. And she allowed Coretta Scott King to live in this space. They knocked down the walls of three different condominiums and created this home for Coretta Scott King and Oprah told Coretta that she could live there as long as she lived. And when she passed away, that was the home that I visited to work with their children on the funeral services and the visitation and so on. The condominium was at the very top of the building. And it was like walking through history. There was a grand piano in the living room with a bust, a beautiful bust of Martin Luther King. There were pictures that had never been seen by the public before, robes that were encased in acrylic. It was like walking through a art gallery, a museum, if you will.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
But the night that Coretta was laying in state, Oprah pulls up in the back of the church, this old church, this gravel parking lot. And the only thing I'm thinking is, "She's going to be in four inch heels or maybe five and there's no she's going to be able to get up this metal fire escape in the back." So we had to help her to come in and we stopped the lines and she stood over Corettas body for about 10 or 15 minutes and whispered prayers. They had a relationship that a lot of the public that didn't realize that they were really that close and that Oprah really wanted to take care of Coretta Scott King, but it was a great opportunity. And I think some of that experience, of being so involved in those individuals that gave their lives, that really marched, that of a true activist, became a lot of who I have become as a leader, to respect that and to understand that. I know that was a long story, but I wanted to make sure that I shared that with you.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
In watching everyone, they were right along with you in that story. I want to ask one last question. There's so much richness in your different responses, but... So we've got about 80 students here going to graduate, we trust, in the next year or two. So aside from a Saint Leo University degree, whether you look for in a candidate when you're hiring?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
I really look for young people, not just young people, anybody who's really focused on community service, our work, a lot of people think, all the bells and whistles, the blue lights and all of the toys, we call it, everything from horses to motorcycles. That's part of it. But a lot of what our officers do every day is just common types of activities where they're helping someone in an accident. They're speaking to people about how to get out of a certain type of situation. It's not all enforcement. And we really look for people who understand and who can turn it on and turn it off. You know?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And when I say that, I mean, we wear a lot of different hats. A lot of our officers are very involved in the community in they're off time. They spend a lot of time with young people, they do mentoring, they have computer labs, they work as coaches on various types of teams. And a lot of that is that proactive work that we know is important. We don't make our officers do that but it's nice to have young people that are a part of our organization who naturally understand that it's not the bravado that makes the community appreciate us, it's that one time interaction with that community member and how they felt about that interaction. How you made them feel? Did you respect them? Did you take care of their issue? And is it one that leaves a positive impression on the department as a whole?

Dr. Mark Gesner:
After her presentation, chief Davis took several questions from the audience, which you will hear now.

Student Question 1 (Charisma):
Hi, I'm Charisma. Thank you for coming. It's really nice to have you. One of my questions are, what are some of the things that you found yourself sacrificing as you reached a lot of success? And did you find them worth sacrificing as you got the level that you did?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Yeah, actually a lot of sacrifices. But not just in my world, anything that you want to achieve, you will have to make sacrifices. And some of the sacrifices that I even talked about last night at dinner, is that working on my master's degree, even as a law enforcement professional, I spent time early in the morning, sometimes when I had a break at work studying and writing. And if I was out on a call or it was quiet, I would have books in the car sometimes.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
You have to think in terms of what are the obstacles in front of you and how do you navigate around them? Sometimes the obstacles can be the people in your life. Sometimes don't want to see you succeed. And it's true. So what you have to do is really think in terms of, "Where are those obstacles and how do I navigate around them?" And the sacrifices as it relates to, when I wanted to be with friends and even sometimes when I wanted to go places with my family, it would be my sisters and brothers, everybody was doing their... "We're going to go to Florida this weekend or we..." "You know what? I wish I could go, but unfortunately I can't." But the ends justify the means. Hard work... I can't say enough about sacrifice. So that was a really good question, Charisma. Keep sacrificing.

Student Question 2:
In my recent classes, we've been talking about reform of the department or people argue abolishment as well. Do you feel that the police department, that we put too much expectations on the police department where, or we expect them to take responsibility for certain things that maybe we as community leaders can handle? And do you think that affects how police interact with the community?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And I do. I think we need to find balance. I think you're absolutely right. Community members expect a lot out of public safety, they really do. In my career I've had calls from everything from, "There's a squirrel in my attic, they delivered the wrong pizza." And I'm serious. Or, "My child isn't acting right."

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So there's an expectation for police to really handle things that they probably shouldn't. I wish that we didn't have to have police in schools. Unfortunately in today's environment schools can sometimes be a dangerous place. And I hate to you say it. And I'm not necessarily talking about the universities. I'm talking about elementary schools and middle schools. And when people say "Abolish the police." Is that really a thing that we in a day time, that we live in right now, if you have a situation that you know you can't handle, who you going to call? You going to pick up telephone and call 911. And you going to hope that there's a nice guy that's going to come in a uniform and they're going to help mitigate this situation. So we have to find balance. I do believe that police are far into some areas that they shouldn't be. But everybody expects a lot from law enforcement.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
When I was a young officer, we didn't have to worry about social service. There were social service representatives and officials to handle certain types of situations. There were mental illness professionals that handle various types of crisis. There were places that you could take individuals that were experiencing their mental crisis. Today? Not so much. And so now we're training our officers on crisis intervention, because mental illnesses and behavioral problems are so prevalent in our community. But yeah, we need to find balance. I don't believe in, 'defund the police'. Crime has skyrocketed in many major cities and the country can't afford for police to go and stay home for 24 hours. Just give us 24 hours off the street. It'll be a disaster. So we really have to be very realistic about the time that we live in, but we do need to find balance in how we provide public safety.

Student Question 3:
How should law enforcement address the disproportionate rate of arrest among black and brown people more than white?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So that's always a difficult question that's posed for me, but I can answer it because I'm an African American woman that's always in the data. And unfortunately we already talked about some of the underlying issues in black and brown communities. The lack of jobs sometimes, education, various types of adverse childhood experiences, that disproportionately affect minority communities. And unfortunately, in my community, in the city of Memphis and the community that I left before then, many of the violent actors, unfortunately, are our young African American men. And sometimes those individuals that are from communities where they haven't had an opportunity to do something different or something more positive because of the lack of the attention and resources in those communities.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So I would love to see less African American, young men and women go to prison and jail, but we have to invest in communities to change that. And I've said, I'm not going to go out and go arrest more white men and women just so that we can get balanced numbers. The problem is what it is. We have to really address the underlying problems in our community.

Student Question 4:
Do you think that the amount of police brutality cases brought to the public's attention affects the efficiency of police such as, are they second guessing their use of force during an arrest or an encounter with anyone?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So I think and as I mentioned before, the uniform is part of what I do every day, but I get up in the morning and when I watch the news, I have the same response as my fellow community members when I see things that happen that make me scratch my head. And as a leader in this career field, it's my responsibility to put checks and balances in place to manage those types of situations. And I believe that because there's so much attention now on things that may have been going on for many, many years, but social media and this new age of being able to record everything that's happening, sometimes recordings pick up pieces of a situation and sometimes they are very accurate and they pick up the whole situation. Much of what we see is being addressed by leaders who feel like reform is important, deescalation is important. And not just deescalation for our officers, but how do we have safe encounters with the police?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
There's a class that I'm familiar with that my organization, NOBLE is doing, or has been doing it for some time, even prior to George Floyd, this is called 'the law in your community'. And that particular program helps young people and police officers understand how important it is to have a safe encounter with the police. What can you do as a community member to help ensure that when you get pulled over, that that's a safe encounter. And what can that officer do? His attitude, the amount of courtesy and respect that he provides to that community member. What can he do to ensure that situation doesn't escalate to be something that it doesn't have to be? But we also have checks and balances in my department. Every department, at 18,000 police departments. Now every department doesn't have checks and balances like they should. But now that we have more involvement from our legislators and federal entities, national standards are going to ensure that there are checks and balances so that if there are officers that exhibit certain types of behavior and have patterns of it, we can address that.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
So we keep data to see, "Okay, if you got a courtesy complaint three times in one month, nine times out of 10, you're probably being discourteous." Discourteous, wouldn't you think? So having checks and balances in places in court. But we've got a lot of work to do to impact change around the country. But thank you for your very thoughtful question.

Student Question 5:
As a black woman in a high position, what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
You want all of them? There were many. But I think you have to really have a lot of confidence in yourself too... And really know that whatever goals you set out, there're going to be obstacles along the way. I don't care whether it's a colleague or being looked over for a promotion or whatever the case might be, there're always going to be obstacles along the way. And you just have to know that there's nothing that can keep you from meeting your goals and your objectives, in achieving greatness, if you stay focused and sacrifice as young lady here said. But yes, there were many. And I think, oh, some of them were because I was the only girl in the class. I graduated and I was the only girl in the class, but there were days where I thought I wanted to give up, because I felt like there was this force that was literally against me, but I think it's made me who I am. And now that I'm in this position, I'm more cognizant of making sure that there's an even playing field for everybody. Not just African American woman, any woman, any man. It doesn't matter your race or origin. I want everybody that works for me to know and understand that you have a chance at greatness, working for me and I'm going to do everything in my power to help you get there.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Thank you so much for being here. I just keep thinking about our own mission here to boldly confront the challenges of the world through service to others. And I think of your position as those challenges being so urgent. And yet you have such a calming presence when you speak. And I wonder just as a leader, how in the face of those very urgent issues, challenges, you remain calm?

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Yeah, so that's a good question. And this brings me to a conversation that I had with Tasha this morning, Tasha standing back there, on the way in. And we were about those times when everything is going wrong and you're under a lot of stress. And some of you probably heard this before, that sometimes as leaders, we have to be like ducks, gliding on the water. And you heard that before. Our feet under the water are doing like this, but on the top, we continue to glide. And I think that's important because there's so many people paying attention and watching. And if I lose it, my whole team's going to lose it.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
And even when I'm losing it inside, I don't let them know. Even when I'm feeling uncomfortable, in these positions, I think emotional intelligence is really important. Those of you who haven't taken that class, you need to take one, because you need to be in tune to your own emotions and you need to be in tune to the emotions of others around you. It comes with time too. It really does. And there have been many days where the stress is there, but I'm always trying to keep my folks calm. And I let them know too, especially my leaders, you can't freak out, because if you freak out the whole team going to freak out, so get it together. And I think that comes with time. Good question. Thank you.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Thank you. Well with that, I think we're going to wrap up this part of the conversation on purpose with Chief Davis. So thank you.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Thank you.

Dr. Mark Gesner:
Very much.

Chief Cerelyn Davis:
Thank you all.

Speaker 1:
To hear more episodes of the Saint Leo 360 podcast, visit saintleo.edu/podcast. To learn more about Saint Leo's programs and services. Call 877 622 2009, or visit saintleo.edu.

Episode Summary

In this episode of the Saint Leo 360 podcast, we feature a conversation with Cerelyn Davis, a Saint Leo University alumna where she earned her bachelor’s in criminal justice degree and current chief of the Memphis Police Department. This conversation is from the “Mission Driven Leaders: Conversations on Purpose” program and was the first installment of this series held at University Campus in February. Davis discussed:

  • Her early years growing up in a military family
  • Her military service and how she got interested in a criminal justice career
  • Her lengthy and highly successful criminal justice career working for the Atlanta Police department, Durham, NC Police Department, and her current role with the Memphis Police Department
  • Her influences in her career, including Saint Leo University professors
  • How she has moved up in leadership positions and what it takes to become an effective leader
  • Her experience interacting with several civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King

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