Editor’s note: This is the first of two profiles on the Durham police chief finalists. You can read the second story now at www.thedurhamnews.com and Wednesday in The Durham News.
Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis has wanted to lead a police department since the 1990s.
But as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2008, she has been concerned that despite her many promotions, a controversy over a sex-crimes investigation might derail that aspiration.
“Two resumes on the table. They look exactly alike,” Davis was quoted in the Journal-Constitution. “One had some drama, and the other one didn’t. It’s easy to take the one that didn’t.”
Both finalists for Durham police chief have faced controversy. In announcing them on Tuesday, City Manager Tom Bonfield said Davis was exonerated after being discharged in 2008 when she was falsely accused of a cover up during a scandal in the City of Atlanta Police Department. Davis was fired – and then sued and was rehired – after an investigation into a fellow officer’s husband, who was indicted on child pornography charges.
The other finalist, Maj. Michael J. Smathers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, “withstood significant pressure in 2013 as he investigated the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell and recommended a fellow officer be charged,” Bonfield noted. (More on that Wednesday.)
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 about eight years.
His successor will oversee a department with a nearly $55 million budget and 630 employees, including 512 sworn officers, according to police spokeswoman Kammie Michael.
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.
Davis has experience that directly relates to several issues facing Durham.
She supervises the Atlanta Police Department’s Strategy and Special Projects Division, which includes capital projects. Her insight into could be valuable as Durham proceeds with plans for a new $71 million headquarters on East Main Street..
She’s also worked in internal affairs and community policing in a department of 2,008 officers.
Durham had 37 criminal homicides last year — and January 2015 was the most violent month on record — but that pales compared to Atlanta. The city of 450,000, roughly twice as large as Durham, logged 95 murders in 2015.
As head of the Special Projects Division, Davis is responsible for aspects of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking enforcement and Homeland Security programs. Atlanta is a much larger city, with more interstate and airport traffic that makes it a prime drug trafficking area. However, Durham is not Atlanta. And Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson recently questioned the propriety of Durham police accepting federal grants for the drug trafficking interdiction in part because of the possibility of racial profiling during these stops.
While not solely Davis’ call, “video integration” and body cameras also fall under her job description.
In 2014, the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, similar to Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board, scrutinized the proposed policy and came up with several concerns, including consent, retention, privacy and access.
And last November, the Atlantic magazine reported that, while no city police department had ideal body camera policies, “Two departments stood out in particular as having especially dreadful rules: Atlanta and Ferguson, Missouri. In every category that researchers examined, Atlanta and Ferguson either had a poor policy or failed to specify any policy at all.”
Atlanta has delayed its deployment of body cameras while a lawsuit over the bidding process works its way through the courts.
Durham has also delayed buying body cameras because of concerns about the policies for them and access to the camera footage.
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.