The two finalists for Durham police chief are law enforcement veterans who have remained professional under pressure, City Manager Tom Bonfield said Tuesday.
The finalists are Deputy Chief Cerelyn J. Davis, who serves over the Strategy and Special Projects Division of the Atlanta Police Department, and Maj. Michael J. Smathers, who oversees the Field Services Group of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Davis oversees several units including project management, public affairs and crime analysis. As a lieutenant, she served as the personnel commander, public affairs manager, and executive assistant to the chief of police. She was also appointed commander of the department’s Homeland Security Unit and oversaw the Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit, Gun and Gang Unit, and Cyber Crimes Unit, among other duties.
Smathers oversees the Field Services Group consisting of 315 police officers. While serving as captain of the Charlotte Eastway Patrol Division, in one of the city’s most most ethnically diverse areas, he received a community policing award for leadership and the division’s achievement of reducing crime, including closing a crime-plagued hotel, while successfully managing two federal crime-fighting grants, according to a city news release.
Durham has been searching for a new chief since Bonfield asked then Chief Jose Lopez to resign late last year under mounting criticism and a rising violent crime rate. Lopez had been chief for about eight years.
But the new chief will face policing and public relations challenges.
The department has been under at times intense criticism over several officer-involved or in-custody deaths occurring in recent years. Outside studies have fueled accusations of racial profiling, a claim Lopez denied but which the city’s Human Relations Commission upheld after months of public hearings.
At a rally March 14, about 175 protesters took over the street outside police headquarters and again invoked the name of Jesus Huerta, the 17-year-old Riverside High School student who police say fatally shot himself in 2013 while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.
And while property crime fell last year, Durham’s violent crime rate rose 18 percent in 2015. The increase followed a 15 percent jump in 2014.
In a statement, Bonfield said Davis and Smathers have each been under pressure and demonstrated “a commitment to police professionalism, transparency, accountability, and a positive relationship with the communities they serve.”
Davis was exonerated after being discharged in 2008 when she was falsely accused of a cover-up during a scandal in the Atlanta Police Department, according to the city news release.
She was demoted, then fired in 2008 after an internal investigation found she told two detectives not to investigate a case involving the husband of one of the detectives. According to the Associated Press, the Atlanta police were given pornographic photos of the husband with underage girls in 1999 or 2000 but didn’t turn them over to the FBI until 2007.
Davis was reinstated by Atlanta’s Civil Service Board nearly three months later after the board decided the detectives had offered inconsistent testimony and had implicated her to cover for themselves.
Smathers recommended that a fellow officer be criminally charged in 2013 when he investigated the circumstances surrounding the white police officer’s shooting of an unarmed black man.
In a deposition in a civil lawsuit, Smathers said he believed the shooting by officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick was unjustified because Jonathan Ferrell was unarmed and his hands were visible to Kerrick and other officers, The Charlotte Observer reported. Kerrick shot Ferrell 10 times.
A jury eventually split in the case, with eight voting for acquittal, and a judge declared a mistrial. The state Attorney General’s Office chose not to retry the case. The city later paid the family of the dead man $2.25 million in a settlement, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Mark-Anthony Middleton, a Durham minister and spokesman for Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), was part of a group that helped vet a larger group of candidates before the two finalists were selected
Middleton participated in a mock press conference in which six or seven candidates faced questions regarding several scenarios, including a Tasing incident, the shooting by police of an armed Latino father distraught after his son got into a car accident, and the transfer of a popular police officer to a post across town.
“The two candidates (who are now finalists) were quite impressive,” Middleton said Tuesday night.
Middleton said he asked himself if, in real-life situations, he could see them “handling the room and not embarrassing us as police chief.”
“And these two candidates did well,” he said. “It wasn’t their first rodeo. They were very measured. Both of them I think displayed command presence.”
The new chief will oversee a police department with a nearly $55 million budget and about 630 employees, including 512 sworn officers, according to spokeswoman Kammie Michael.
But Middleton hopes the new chief brings more than a new face to the job.
“We have an opportunity to fundamentally transform the (department’s) guiding philosophy,” he said, to emphasize community engagement and officers’ relationships with those they serve.
“We don’t just want a new police chief,” he said. “We want a new police department.”
The finalists for police chief will meet the public in a community forum from 7 to 8 p.m. April 6 at City Hall. It will be televised live on Durham Television Network (DTN), which is available on Time Warner Cable channel 8 and AT&T U-verse channel 99, on DTN’s live stream from the city’s website, and live streamed from the city’s Facebook page.