One week ago, new Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis faced her first fast-breaking, community crisis involving police firing fatal shots.
As I write, based on her initial, 14-minute on-camera appearance only, Davis can be commended for a reserved and candid presentation.
The chief was on-point, poised and polished. Her predecessor in the job, Jose Lopez, sorely lacked these traits.
Davis spoke as reaction and tension were still swirling, just three and a half hours after police shot and killed 34-year old Frank Clark during an altercation at McDougald Terrace.
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She stood before the media, and essentially the city, to tell reporters what she knew and felt she could say at that early stage.
Apart from what might occur in subsequent days, as well as how the investigation proceeds and what it ultimately concludes, Davis demonstrated she was up the challenge.
The benefits and lessons garnered from her wide-ranging experience in the Atlanta Police Department were easy to discern.
Davis told reporters she’d gone to the scene after the incident. She asserted that the shooting would have a “traumatic effect.” When she didn’t know details, she said so in a a thoughtful, straightforward manner.
The chief clearly saw her job that afternoon as not just a conduit for information that was evolving even as she spoke, but as a law enforcement leader who knew there would be fear, anger, criticism, public grief and some strident protest.
There was one area, though, where Davis fell short.
It would have been suitable and helpful for the chief to state that the shooting death was a sad, deeply unfortunate and powerful occurrence, with severe repercussions for the deceased’s family and friends.
She made no reference, really, to the inherent personal pain that attends these circumstances. It is the one overriding truth in these cases, cause notwithstanding.
I have little doubt Davis appreciates that depth of emotion, and her demeanor was pensive and serious in all respects. But saying it out loud at the earliest good opportunity is important.
Violent death is not just an incident. It’s a tragedy.
Davis had a third key audience during those 14 minutes that afternoon, beyond the press and greater community. She was speaking to and about her department’s police officers.
A fatal shooting is traumatic for them, too: the hundreds who wear blue, and certainly for the three officers involved.
Those men, in particular any of them who pulled a trigger, can be expected to endure their own strong regret.
Officers out in the field also want to feel broad support from above – no situation they face on the streets is tougher.
Davis might have reiterated that a police officer’s job is always highly challenging and dangerous, but that men and women with badges are also held to high standards of skill, judgment and fairness.
To Davis’ significant credit, there wasn’t a hint of defensiveness in her voice while at the microphone, nor any suggestion that the shooting of Clark appeared to be justified. Davis said she was counting on the State Bureau of Investigation to get to the bottom of what happened.
During my years in journalism, I believe government leaders speaking in a crisis, whether short-term or ongoing, should adhere to 5 Cs. Be calm, credible, competent, confident and compassionate.
Davis hit the first four.
Overall, though, our initial glimpse of the chief Davis under fraught circumstances qualifies as a snapshot in professionalism and restraint under acute pressure.
Stress usually brings out one’s essence, for better or worse. Davis showed a careful, composed command when Durham needed her to do just that.
The probe will find its way, and the results will be telling. For now, there is the usual cloudy sky overhead as to what exactly occurred, accompanied by sharp accusations and simmering rhetoric.
In those first 14 minutes, Davis vowed to be collaborative, inclusive, and transparent throughout.
Policing is under the microscope as never before, and locally, C.J. Davis will receive her share of scrutiny. On day one of a fatal police shooting, she displayed a keen ability to handle it.