Queens native Keechant Sewell goes ‘full circle’ to lead NYPD

It was just a drill, but the scenario was painfully familiar: A white police officer had just killed an unarmed black man, and now the candidates to become the next New York police commissioner had to show how they would address the media.

Some went straight into the technical details of what happened, Mayor-elect Eric Adams said. But one candidate began by acknowledging the loss of the victim’s life.

“It made me sit up because she understood there was a tragedy because a life had been lost,” Mr Adams said. “That’s what we have to understand.”

The mock press conference was just one test in a month-long selection process, but Mr. Adams had found his candidate. On Wednesday, he introduced Keechant Sewell, the 49-year-old Chief of Detectives of the Nassau County Police Department on Long Island, as the first woman to lead the New York Police Department and its 35,000 uniformed officers.

The appointment comes amid a push to redo policing from within after last year’s protests against police brutality and racism. Mr Adams, who vowed during the campaign to choose a woman to lead the department where he was an officer for 22 years, said the way Chief Sewell handled the hypothetical situation demonstrated what he called a “emotional intelligence” that made him stand out.

“These are the scenarios we are going to face,” he said. “I hope we don’t have a shootout like this, but if we do, I need the police commissioner to stand in front of the room and let New Yorkers know that everything will be fine. , because it’s not just substantial, it’s perception, right?

Wednesday’s announcement to Community Capacity Development, an anti-violence organization in Long Island City, the Queens neighborhood where Chief Sewell was born, reflects what Mr. Adams said was a cultural shift for his administration, which will seek to work more with community organizations to give the public a bigger role in helping police reduce crime.

“In this city and in this moment, I have come full circle,” Chief Sewell said. “The NYPD has an important role to play in making our communities safer, but we can’t do it alone.”

Chief Sewell takes over as head of the police department at a time of great uncertainty.

“There has never been a moment in my 51 years in this profession that has been more problematic than this,” said William J. Bratton, who served as police commissioner twice, most recently from 2014 to 2016. “You have the toughest police role in the country, bar none.

Chief Sewell is expected to play a crucial role in striking the balance Mr. Adams wants to achieve between community-led security strategies and traditional policing practices, including some controversial ones that Mr. Adams plans to revive, such as plainclothes police units to target illegals. guns. But it was unclear what role she would play in leading the department from the get-go: She faces a steep learning curve with just two weeks to go until the grand opening.

He also tasked her with diversifying a department that has made progress but is still struggling to reflect the city’s population. Although the number of Asian and Hispanic officers increased under the de Blasio administration, the force is only about 15% black, while the city’s population is about 25% black. Female officers make up about 18% of the force.

Chief Sewell, who is due to retire as an officer and move from Long Island to New York to take up the civilian post of commissioner, served 22 years with the Nassau County Department, rising through the ranks in a variety of assignments , including narcotics and internal affairs. She was the first black woman appointed chief of detectives, overseeing a division of approximately 350 people.

She was well-liked by her colleagues and seen as a tough but fair leader of the detective bureau, said John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives Association. In October, her members voted her Law Enforcement Person of the Year.

“She leads by example and she is very appreciative of the men and women in our department,” Wighaus said.

The department saw his potential early on, sending him in the fall of 2008 to the FBI National Academy, a prestigious and competitive training program for law enforcement officials. She was an outstanding student, her counselor and classmates said, and she was elected class president and gave the commencement address.

“I found it absolutely remarkable,” said Valérie Tanguay-Masner, who attended the academy while a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, a position from which she has since retired.

“Keechant was very athletic, very energetic, very focused and driven by what she wanted to do,” she added. “I believe her integrity is absolutely beyond reproach. She was a shining star.

Art Howell, a classmate who retired earlier this year as police chief in Racine, Wisconsin, said as a black woman and a sergeant at the time, Chief Sewell was a figure rare from the academy. Most of the other officers were in senior ranks and only 26 of the 256 participants were women, he said.

But he said the symbolism should not overshadow his qualifications. “She has a lot of substance,” he said.

Tremendous challenges await him in New York, where relations between police and communities of color have been strained for years and calls to cut the police department predate the pandemic.

Perhaps his biggest challenge will be overcoming doubts about his ability to lead a department that is far larger and bureaucratically more complex than Nassau County’s force of about 2,400 officers. As chief of detectives there, she has as many people under her command as the typical district commander in town.

She inherits a strained relationship with the city council and state legislature, which her predecessors have criticized for enacting laws to make the criminal justice system fairer but which former commissioners say have made scapegoating cops, emboldened criminals and made the city less safe. Gun violence, which reached a decade high in 2020, remains higher than before the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Chief Sewell seemed unfazed. At the press conference, she said those who doubted her should “come and talk to me in a year.”

Dr. Tracie Keesee, who served as a Denver police officer for 25 years and an assistant police commissioner in New York, said the challenges faced by the next police commissioner also present opportunities to reshape the department’s culture and operations. .

The city has already started experimenting with having social workers answer some mental health calls that traditionally went to the police and has opened a Neighborhood Safety office to give communities more say in how they feel. are protected. Dr. Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a public policy nonprofit, said it was also possible to eliminate inefficiencies from internal processes.

Frederick Brewington, a civil rights attorney who has called for police reform in Nassau County, said he believes as police commissioner Chief Sewell will be able to show strengths that she had been unable to post to Long Island.

If Chief Sewell had been in charge of the department, he said, he expected the county to have seen greater progress.

“There would have been an opportunity to see meaningful reform if she had been police commissioner in Nassau County,” he said.

Others described her as someone who impressed them with her confidence, sharp intellect, and ability to listen and problem-solve.

“There was no flaw in the armor,” said Jeffrey Knotts, a retired FBI special agent who was his adviser at the FBI academy.

Paul Tonna, who first met Chief Sewell as part of a two-year leadership program he helps run at Molloy College on Long Island, said she once led a police demonstration for attendees alongside the decorated SWAT team and K-9 unit officers — a group Mr. Tonna noted were largely older white men.

“All these guys with all these stars on their backhand, and Keechant commanded absolutely all their respect,” he said. “She is the real deal and an incredible force of nature.”

One of the attendees, Tracey Edwards, a member of Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability, said she had sought to implement reforms within the Nassau County Police Department, but found the department reluctant to accept change. “But she had no place in this resistance,” Ms Edwards said of Chief Sewell. “That tells me everything.”

Chief Sewell’s love for the city and her varied law enforcement experience will be a strength in her new role, Ms. Tanguay-Masner said.

“I think everything that’s happened in Keechant’s career so far has prepared her for this challenge,” she said.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed report. Kitty Bennett and Jack Begg contributed research.