For the first time in the New York Police Department’s 176-year history, a woman will become police commissioner of the nation’s largest police force – leading an agency tasked with combating police misconduct and the recent rise in violent crime, while raising the stakes for departments around the country.
New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams on Wednesday formally named Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County chief of detectives, as the city’s first female police commissioner. Sewell, who will be the NYPD’s third Black commissioner and the first non-white male in more than 30 years, will take the reins of an agency that has largely excluded women from its top ranks in recent years.
“Chief Sewell’s appointment today is a powerful message to girls and young women across the city, there is no ceiling to your ambition,” Adams said. “I am so proud today to tear down barriers. This amazing law enforcement professional, she carried with her throughout her career a sledgehammer. And she crushed every glass ceiling that was put in her way and today she had crashed and destroyed the final one we need in New York City.”
It was somewhat of a surprise move. Sewell was not on the list of rumored names that included former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes.
But with Sewell’s hire, Adams, a former NYPD captain, delivered on his pledge in the early days of his mayoral campaign to hire the first woman to lead the department, choosing a woman who grew up in a public housing complex in New York City’s section of Queens and rose through the ranks inside the police department in neighboring Nassau County on Long Island.
“If I wanted someone to just keep doing what we’ve always done, I would’ve picked some of the leading police heads throughout the country so they can do what we’ve always done,” Adams said. “I needed a visionary. I needed someone that was ready to transform our department and that’s what I’ve found.
Her goal: ‘A safer city, a more inclusive city’
While New York will be the largest city to appoint a woman police chief to lead an agency that employs roughly 52,000, including more than 34,000 uniformed officers, cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, Oakland, Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC have had female police chiefs or currently employ one.
“I stand here today because a man boldly and unapologetically made a decision … that gave women in policing across this country an opportunity, not a favor, but a chance to work with him, the citizens, and the finest most storied police department in the world to make New York City a safer city, a more inclusive city where the community feels connected, heard and served,” Sewell said. “No matter where they live or work.”
Women have only begun making strides in law enforcement in the past decade as more female candidates have slowly moved into the pipeline to be considered for chiefs’ positions, many of whom are in mid-sized to smaller agencies where the talent pool is limited, according to Dorothy Schulz, the first captain of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Police Department and its predecessor, Conrail.
But the women in law enforcement who do break barriers in their pursuit, like Sewell, are faced with the “unrealistic expectation” from the public that they will revolutionize the department, Schulz said.
“The constant harping on or envisioning that women are going to revolutionize policing is very unhelpful to women,” Schulz said. “And it’s also unrealistic because they’re still few in number and the presumption is that those who’ve been successful negotiating the existing power structure are somehow going to get to the top and decide to revolutionize it.”
Schulz, who did an independent study with Adams at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and taught Adams in two of her classes, said it was “not a good thing for women” when he announced ahead of time that he would appoint a female police commissioner.
“When you say you’re going to appoint a woman or you’re going to appoint a minority male, I think you diminish them unconsciously,” Schulz said, “because instead of saying they’re the best, it somehow to me implies that they are the best of that category.”