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Leadership matters: Police chief shoots from heart

CJ Davis relishes her life calling. ‘It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for other people.’

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Cerelyn “CJ” Davis didn’t take to cartoons or more traditional kids TV shows while growing up, one of six kids in a military family. Instead, she dove into procedural police shows.

“Early on my mother thought something was wrong with me because Saturday mornings I was always watching cop shows,” Davis says. “For me it was Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice. I was infatuated with criminal justice. I didn’t know that level of interest in those types of shows would become part of who I am — literally.”

It did. And now Davis is amid a notable law enforcement career, where she worked her way up to high-ranking posts in the Atlanta Police Department, including overseeing the SWAT team and multiple other units. She’s also been named chief of two major police forces in the South, first in Durham, North Carolina and, in 2021, Memphis. In Memphis, when her term began in June, Davis became city’s first female police chief. 

Davis is the past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on police reform after the killing of George Floyd. And 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!

Davis’s resume also includes this nugget: she graduated from Saint Leo University, the private university in Pasco County, with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Davis spent a day on campus in late February, where she was the keynote speaker at the school’s program entitled Mission-Driven Leaders: Conversations on Purpose.

Davis recalled when she graduated from her police academy class in Atlanta, she was one of 11 women in a class of 37 — a high number of women for the time. But even then, she says, there were doubters she would go far her chosen career. “We were ready for law enforcement,” Davis says. “Law enforcement wasn’t ready for us.”


Lift others up

At her St. Leo University chat, Davis detailed some of her leadership lessons and philosophies. Highlights include:

Be ready: Davis says preparation goes a long way to both career advancement and being a better leader. “I had mentors who told me never turn down an opportunity, because if the door swings open, it may never swing open again,” she says. “You have to be ready walk through it.”

Avoid the pack: Davis reminds her staff and officers regularly that “you never see an eagle flying around with another eagle. You do see chickens hanging out together,” she quips. “But you always see eagles flying alone.”

“Leadership is about taking chances and taking risks,” she adds, “and not being afraid to be by yourself.”

‘The uniform is what I do, it’s not who I am. Titles get in the way of allowing us to be human. C.J. Davis

Lifelong lessons: Davis remembers an important message from a St. Leo professor, who said to be sure to learn something about everything. “Now I have this saying, that ‘we’re never as good as we think we are.’ We all think we’re rock stars but we’re not really rock stars,” Davis says. “We always have room for improvement. We always have room to learn more.”

Words matter: One of Davis’ mentors was Beverly Harvard, the first Black female police chief of the Atlanta Police Department. On the day Harvard retired, the outgoing leader was leaving the building and stopped, Davis recalls, on her way out the door. “She could see I was happy for her and sad at the same time, and she held my hands and said in a way I would never forget, she said ‘CJ, you have what it takes.’ And when she said that, I knew exactly what she meant,” Davis says. “At the time I was only a lieutenant, but she was basically telling me I could do what she had done, that I could achieve the exact same thing she did.”

Mark Gordon.
Mark Gordon.

“I’m a chief of police twice now,” she says, “and a lot of who I am comes from people who planted the seeds and who believed in me, and who saw in me things I didn’t see at the time.”

Street sense: Davis seeks to hire officers with high emotional intelligence, people who can relate well to others. That sense of self-awareness, she says, comes from her parents. “The uniform is what I do, it’s not who I am. Titles get in the way of allowing us to be human.”

Davis adds that one important lesson, on humility, she learned from her dad. “It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for other people.”


Strive ahead

Stick with it: Davis would keep books in her car to study and would sometimes miss outings with friends and family while she pursued her degree and career advancement. “I can’t say enough about sacrifice,” she says. “Anything you want to achieve, you will have to make sacrifices. But there’s nothing that can keep you from meeting your goals and objectives, and keep you from greatness, if you stay focused and sacrifice.”

Photos by Chad Gonzalez Saint Leo University. University President Jeffrey Senese presents Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis with a gift. Davis is a Saint Leo alumna.
Photos by Chad Gonzalez Saint Leo University. University President Jeffrey Senese presents Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis with a gift. Davis is a Saint Leo alumna.

Be all you can be: Davis’ father was one of the first Black men in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He was also an Army training instructor — and sometimes brought work home. “Sometimes he was yelling at the troops and sometimes he was yelling at us at home,” she says, “But we took it in stride. Everything we did as young people we tried to do it in a way to make him proud. He never allowed us to do anything  (subpar.) I don’t care whether it was washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. He would come up behind us and say ‘you didn’t do a good job.’”

“Now I’m so meticulous. Excellence, to me, is what we should all strive for. When I think of excellence, I think about my father.”

Duck, duck: One of the keys to being a high-performing leader in high-stress situations, says Davis, is to stay calm. She often cites the old saying to be like a duck — calm on the surface but paddling like hell underneath — to her department’s senior leaders. “There are times everything is going wrong and you’re under a lot of stress,” she says, “but on the top you have to continue to glide.”

“I think that’s important because there are so many people paying attention and watching, and if I lose it, my whole team’s going to lose it. Even when I’m losing it inside, I don’t let them know. You can’t freak out because if you freak out, the whole team is going to freak out.”


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