While interviewing to become New York City’s next police commissioner, Keechant Sewell was asked to participate in a mock press conference simulating her response to the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer.
“We wanted to see if she would be shaken,” Mayor-Elect Eric Adams told reporters on Wednesday morning during his introduction of the first woman to lead the city’s Police Department. “How do you deal with being under the big lights of New York City?”
For a brief moment on Wednesday, Sewell, the 49-year-old Nassau County chief of detectives, grew emotional under that spotlight, blinking back tears after hearing Adams explain her connection to Queensbridge Houses, the site of the news conference and her childhood home.
“Queensbridge Houses is part of my story,” she said. “To all the little girls within the sound of my voice, there is nothing you can't do, and no one you can't become.”
“In this city, in this moment,” she added, “I have come full circle.”
The appointment is arguably the next administration’s most-anticipated, and marks an historic first with the appointment of a Black woman to helm the city’s largest police force.
But when she takes over at the start of next month, Sewell will inherit a long list of challenges — from the pandemic-fueled rise in gun violence to a persistent mistrust of police in many communities — all amid skepticism from some over whether she possesses the experience to steer a department of 35,000 officers.
Nassau County's police force, where she spent her 25-year career thus far, has just 2,400 people. In her role as Chief of Detectives, a position she held for just one year, she managed a division of 350.
Sewell’s resume offers a portrait of a woman who steadily climbed the ranks of Nassau County's police department, an overwhelmingly white institution.
She began her career as a patrol officer, later serving as a hostage negotiator and a narcotics detective. Between 2017 and 2020, she led the department’s Professional Standards Bureau, which includes the internal affairs department. The unit, seen as a stepping stone among ambitious Long Island cops, has drawn harsh criticism from police reform advocates, who say the department has long blocked attempts at transparency.
“It's a very difficult thing to do an effective job in the area of discipline,” said Dennis Jones, a police reform advocate on Long Island and member of the Guardians Association, a Black fraternal organization to which Sewell also belongs. “The unions block every aspect.”
Still, John Wighaus, president of the Nassau Detectives Association, praised Sewell’s professionalism, suggesting their relationship was far from hostile.
“She had an open door policy with us,” he said Wednesday. “While sometimes you don't agree on things, we always worked to a successful conclusion.”
Adams, a former police captain who campaigned on restoring public safety, has promised to make policing a top priority. He has also said he intends to create a deputy mayor for public safety, a role that had previously existed under Mayor David Dinkins. Phillip Banks, a former chief of department who retired amid a bribery scandal and a close adviser to Adams, is said to be among the contenders.
In his opening remarks, the mayor-elect seemed to anticipate criticism over his choices, which he attempted to blunt with what has now become a regular refrain.
“People want to question what we do and how we're doing it,” he said. “All that's fine. But the only thing you need to understand—I'm the mayor.”
Given Adams’ own experience and focus on policing, he may look to micromanage a department with which he’s more familiar than perhaps any of his predecessors.
Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who studies policing, said Sewell could wind up being “more of a cutout than a commissioner.”
“She doesn't have any independent, separate sources of power politically or culturally within the department,” Fagan added. “She comes as an outsider in a department that is diverse at the patrol ranks, but not particularly diverse at the command ranks.”
Criminal justice advocates have also expressed concern about Adams’ plan to implement what he has said would be a legal version of stop-and-frisk, a policing practice he himself has criticized for being overused and racially targeted.
At one point, the press conference was interrupted by a heckler who yelled, “Why are you bringing back stop-and-frisk?”
Sewell, who said she plans to move to the city from her Valley Stream home, echoed the mayor-elect’s view on stop-and-frisk. She said quality of life crimes “have to be enforced when it's appropriate,” but argued that a balance could be struck.
As for whether she had the experience to run the nation’s largest police department, Sewell said she was confident that she’d bring a fresh perspective to the job.
“If they don’t believe in me,” she said, “come and talk to me in a year.”