The groundbreaking choice of Keechant Sewell — a Black woman and Nassau police chief — to lead the NYPD underscored Mayor-elect Eric Adams' goals of finding the best person to drive down city crime while expanding opportunity across the department, he said Wednesday.
At a news conference with Sewell, 49, at Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, where she lived as a child, Adams described her as "the woman for the job" leading the nation’s largest police department — 35,000 cops and 18,000 civilians. He also said Sewell's appointment — sent "a powerful message to girls and young women across the city: There is no ceiling to your ambitions."
Sewell, a Valley Stream resident, and the first female NYPD police commissioner, told reporters and other officials that on her watch, the department "will be laser-focused on violent crime, with an emphasis on guns. … We’ll arrest violent criminals, take guns off the street, and then build the cases to help keep them off."
City cops will also go after quality of life offenses "when it’s appropriate," Sewell said, although she wasn’t specific.
Later Wednesday, Sewell and Adams met with senior NYPD chiefs and civilian deputy commissioners where she impressed those in attendance, said a high-ranking NYPD official at the meeting who asked to remain anonymous.
"It was positive and encouraging," the department official said of the meeting with Sewell at police headquarters in Manhattan.
The mayor-elect said at the meeting that Sewell will play a crucial role in helping advance his goal of returning to a time in the city's not-so-distant past when violent crime had plunged to historic lows.
Sewell's appointment took the policing world by surprise but also signaled a trailblazing moment for Nassau's chief of detectives in a career of more than 24 years marked by them. When she was appointed chief of detectives in September 2020 with a salary of $244,692 annually, Sewell was the first Black woman to hold the post. She is the third Black police commissioner in NYPD history, which dates back to 1845.
Before heading the department’s detective division, Sewell oversaw Internal Affairs as chief of the Professional Standards Bureau.
Adams said he conducted a nationwide search but eventually realized the best choice to replace outgoing Police Commissioner Dermot Shea worked in the county next door. By law, city commissioners must live within the five boroughs, and Sewell plans to move to the city, according to Adams spokesman Evan Thies.
As part of the vetting process, Adams said, Sewell had to answer questions during a mock news conference about white police officer shooting an unarmed Black youth. Adams said Sewell faced tough questions because "we wanted to get under her skin" and see how she would "deal with being under the bright lights of New York City."
Her responses stood out among the other candidates put through a similar process, according to the mayor-elect.
"She started out her response that it was a tragedy to lose a young person," Adams said. "She showed that compassion. Others went into the technical aspects of policing … she started out with the human part of it. That made me sit up because she understood there was a tragedy because a life was lost."
Shea, who has a salary of about $244,000 annually, is retiring on Dec. 31. He sent an internal message to NYPD personnel Wednesday congratulating Sewell.
"I have no doubt that she’ll do a phenomenal job leading the greatest police department in the world," said Shea, who is leaving the post after two years marked by a rise in violent crime and the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
As Adams and Sewell took turns speaking at the Queensbridge Houses news conference, both stood in front of a mural depicting several Black revolutionaries, including Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton and Assata Shakur. At one point, the event was disrupted by a heckler who urged the NYPD not to resuscitate the prolific use of stop and frisk, which soared when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. A federal judge later found the tactic to have been unconstitutionally applied against Black and Hispanic offenders.
"Stop and frisk is not public safety!" the heckler shouted from the street.
Adams downplayed the outburst.
"The numerical minority that yells the loudest is not the opinion of our city," he said. "I was elected by the people of this city with a very clear message. We’re going to successfully use the tools and not abuse the tools."
Sewell was asked whether she would bring to the NYPD the Nassau police policy of refusing to release officer disciplinary records. Nassau has maintained the policy despite state legislation enacted last year revoking a 44-year-old secrecy law — one of the nation's strictest — shielding disclosure.
"I have to take a look at what the city is doing now. I believe the city is pretty transparent with their records online," she said. "I can't speak about Nassau County directly, because I don't have those decisions there, but here, we certainly are 100% for transparency and accountability."
She declined to release her own record, or instruct the Adams transition team, or Nassau County, to do so, saying it was up to Nassau.
Nassau police spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun said Wednesday the department would not release any of Sewell’s personnel records.
The rise in violent crime over the past two years — amid the pandemic and city protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — factored into Adams' candidacy during the mayoral campaign. He had promised to attack crime by going after guns, continuing the neighborhood policing policy pushed by Shea and his predecessors, James O’Neill and William Bratton, and holding cops accountable for bad behavior.
Shea attributed the rise in violent crime since early 2020 in part to bail laws and the inability of the court system to keep suspects in custody or dole out meaningful sentences. In an interview Wednesday, Bratton said Adams and Sewell's plan to go after some quality-of-life crimes reaffirmed the "broken-windows" theory of policing he espoused, in which cops focused on smaller offenses to prevent larger crimes.
"I am very pleased that she and Eric Adams are focused on crime," Bratton told Newsday, adding "so much is quality-of-life enforcement."
The latest NYPD crime statistics show that as 2021 comes to a close, New York City has seen a 1.2% increase in homicides compared to last year and a 4% spike in shootings. In 2020, shootings skyrocketed by about 100% over 2019.
Sewell "clearly understands that she has to zero in on illegal guns and violence," said Richard Aborn, head of the nonprofit New York City Citizens Crime Commission.
Aborn noted that reducing crime takes time and four to six months on the job is enough to assess Sewell's initial performance.
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who promoted Sewell to a 2-star and 3-star chief, said Tuesday night he felt like a "proud parent," watching her ascend to lead the NYPD.
"She is one of the most talented, educated, respectful, transparent — and I can go through the whole dictionary on who she is — and most trusted person in my administration," Ryder said. "I’m elated for her. I’m super excited. I’m just as proud as if my kid got accepted to medical school. She’s at the top of the game. That is the largest and greatest police department in the country and I say that with pride because I was an NYPD cop."
Ryder said he first learned Sewell was under consideration for the job a few weeks ago. On Tuesday morning he got the news that Adams chose Sewell.
"We had some private conversations a couple of weeks ago. I kept it to myself," Ryder said. "And then [Tuesday] morning, she reached out to me, and I got a call from the transition team, to let me know and I highly complimented their choice and I also one hundred percent supported it. It’s a loss for the Nassau County Police Department, a big loss."
The NYPD’s next police commissioner
- Keechant Sewell, 49, Nassau police chief of detectives, the first Black woman to hold the position.
- Sewell is a resident of Valley Stream, and lived as a child in the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City.
- She was hired by the Nassau County Police Department on Oct. 17, 1997.
- Sewell was previously chief of the Nassau police Professional Standards Bureau, which includes Internal Affairs. Before that, she was commanding officer of the Major Case Squad.
- Her grandfather was an NYPD officer and her father served in the Marine Corps.