Queens native Keechant Sewell comes to head NYPD

It was just an exercise, but the scenario was painfully familiar: A white cop had just killed an unarmed black man, and now the candidates to become New York’s next Police Commissioner had to show how they would address them. 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 down because she understood there was a tragedy because a life had been lost,” Mr. Adams said. “This is what we need to understand.”

The mock press conference was a test in a multi-month selection process, but Adams had found his candidate. On Wednesday, he introduced Keechant Sewell, the 49-year-old Detective Chief 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 an attempt to remake the police from the inside after last year’s protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Mr Adams, who vowed during the campaign to choose a woman to lead the department in which he served for 22 years, said the way Chief Sewell handled the hypothetical situation demonstrated what he called “intelligence emotional “that made her stand out.

“These are the scenarios that we are going to be faced with,” 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, isn’t it? “

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

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

Chief Sewell takes the helm of the police force at a time of deep uncertainty.

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

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

He also accused her of diversifying a department that has made progress but still struggles to reflect the city’s population. Although the number of Asian and Hispanic officers increased during Blasio’s administration, the force is only around 15% black, while the city’s population is around 25% black. Women officers make up about 18 percent of the force.

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

She was highly regarded by her colleagues and seen as a tough but fair boss of the detective office, said John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives Association. In October, her members voted her Law Enforcement Person of the Year.

“She sets an example and values ​​the men and women in our service very much,” said Mr. Wighaus.

The department saw his potential early on, sending him in the fall of 2008 to the FBI’s 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 opening speech.

“I found her to be absolutely remarkable,” said Valerie Tanguay-Masner, who attended the academy when she was a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, a position she has since retired from.

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

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

But he said the symbolism shouldn’t overshadow his qualifications. “She’s got a lot of substance,” he said.

Huge challenges await him in New York City, where relations between police and communities of color have been strained for years and calls to downsize policing predate the pandemic.

Perhaps his biggest challenge will be overcoming doubts about his ability to lead a much larger and bureaucratically more complex department than the force of about 2,400 Nassau County officers. As the chief detective there, she has as many people under her command as the typical city precinct commander.

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

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

Dr Tracie Keesee, who served as a Denver police officer for 25 years and deputy police commissioner in New York, said the challenges facing the next police commissioner also present opportunities to reshape the culture and operations of the department.

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

Frederick Brewington, a civil rights lawyer who has called for police reform in Nassau County, said he believed that as Police Commissioner Chief Sewell would be able to showcase forces that ‘she hadn’t been able to post to Long Island.

Had Chief Sewell 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 reforms if she had been a police commissioner in Nassau County,” he said.

Others have described her as someone who impressed them with her self-confidence, sharp intellect, and listening and problem-solving skills.

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

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

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

One of the participants, 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 adopt. change. “But she had no place in that 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 as she takes on her new role, Ms. Tanguay-Masner said.

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

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reports. Kitty Bennett and Jack Begg contributed to the research.

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