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.”
Three percent of top policing jobs are held by women
Research shows that women make up roughly 12% of sworn law enforcement positions nationwide, and only 3% of executive level positions, according to Kym Craven, the executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE). The association was established in 1996 by six female police leaders to support women in the field.
NAWLEE takes part in the 30x30 initiative, which is a coalition of police leaders, researchers, and professional organizations aiming to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30% by 2030 and ensure that policing culture and policies support these women throughout their careers. Over one hundred agencies have committed to the initiative, but it’s only a “longitudinal cure” that will not immediately show progress, Craven said.
“In signing onto the 30×30 pledge, policing agencies agree to report on their efforts to identify and address the obstacles that women officers face in recruitment and throughout their careers,” according to its website.
NAWLEE offers a mentoring program to help agencies promote as many women as possible through the ranks by offering support, training and education. The association has also conducted focus groups to look at female-friendly policies such as modified work schedules for women planning to have children and strong policies against discrimination and harassment.
“We want to make sure that they are competitive when it comes the time for a city manager to start looking for a police chief,” Craven said. “We need to be much more diverse in policing than we are today. If you look at representation in communities, whether it’s women or someone from a community of color, we aren’t doing as well as we should be.”
Adams, who faced his own challenges as member of the NYPD, has talked about diversity in the department and recognizing more diverse talent in the department’s ranks. He said he leaned on his staff to not lower standards while also insisting that his advisers search for a woman.
“We have witnessed so many women who have conducted themselves in a professional way yet never received the opportunity to do the job on a higher level, always sitting on the bench, never allowed to get in the game,” Adams said Wednesday. “That is stopping today.”
High exam scores are allowing women to move up
Sewell was chosen out of a mix of rumored candidates that included Best, Holmes and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, all of whom also happen to be the first Black women to hold senior policing positions. Best confirmed on Tuesday that she was one of the finalists for the position.
Outgoing NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea appointed Holmes last year, confirming her as the highest-ranking African-American woman in NYPD history and the highest-ranking uniformed woman ever. Outlaw, who was previously Portland’s police chief, has been leading Philadelphia police since 2019.
“The NYPD is in some ways unique,” Schulz said. “It’s twice as large as the next largest police department in the country, which is Chicago, and it has 14 ranks to make it to the top. Most people never make it out of the police officer rank.”
According to Schulz, it can take an entire 20-year career for any officer to become an NYPD captain, the highest civil service rank. But women are taking promotional exams as soon as possible and achieving high scores that allow them to move up, she added.
“Women have learned from other women that even if it’s inconvenient to your life, you have to take the tests when they come up because if you fall one cycle behind, it’s very hard to catch up,” Schulz said.
Despite recent advances, the NYPD has been hit with two gender discrimination lawsuits since 2018 by some of its highest-ranking women.
Women make up 19% of the NYPD’s sworn officers, while men account for 81%, according to city data.
In the NYPD and departments nationwide, the significant underrepresentation of women in top law enforcement positions has been a “systemic issue,” according to Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.
While larger departments have had women in their rank and file for decades, there has remained a stark difference between female representation in number and rank, Haberfeld added. Typically, women have held roles in human resources or collaborative policing instead of operational functions, she said.
“I think it was detrimental for the morale of female police officers in the NYPD and around the country to see that regardless of what they do or how they do, the glass ceiling will be there,” Haberfeld told CNN.
The two next-largest police departments in the nation, Los Angeles and Chicago, have yet to hire a female police chief and they don’t appear to be moving in that direction, Haberfeld said. It’s an indication that Adams was a “catalyst” for the appointment of the NYPD’s first female chief, said Haberfeld, who also credits the movement for racial justice and the two gender discrimination lawsuits for Sewell’s rise.
“Adams knows the police department in and out,” Haberfeld said. “He knows what’s going on in the NYPD at a time when gender and racial issues are of high profile in terms of coverage by the media and demands from the public.”
Female chiefs look to the next generation
Several female police chiefs resigned last year amid nationwide protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Best retired after Seattle’s City Council voted to cut nearly $4 million from the police department’s budget; Atlanta Chief Erika Shields resigned after an officer shot and killed a man following a struggle in a parking lot; and Portland Chief Jami Resch resigned just short of six months after taking the job.
Schulz wrote a report last year that looks at why women police chiefs are resigning, arguing that the “odds don’t look favorable for women chiefs anywhere,” she wrote.
“Women law enforcement leaders — particularly chiefs — rather than sitting at the head of the table, are being pushed out of the discussion,” Schulz wrote in The Crime Report. “Whether they will regain momentum or lose ground to male minority candidates remains to be seen.”
“The women I wrote about, nobody cared that they were women,” Schulz told CNN. “They were all pretty much dumped out of their jobs.”
Many high-ranking women in police departments, including chiefs, are aware of their larger responsibility to other women coming behind them, according to Teresa Ewins, who became the first female police chief of Lincoln, Nebraska, this year.
“What one woman does affects the next woman, which you don’t really see with men. If I fail, then most likely, there may not be another woman who is going to come behind me for a while,” Ewins told CNN.
Ewins, who is openly gay, was selected by Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird in June after serving with the San Francisco Police Department for 26 years. “Women are still trying to be part of a male-dominated field,” Ewins said. “As far as the NYPD and the first female commissioner, the women before us went through a lot and it’s our job to take it to the next generation.”
Ewins received a “mixed response” when she came out publicly during her first year with the San Francisco agency, with some turning their backs on her and others affirming her. Members of the LGBTQ+ community “have not made the great strides in law enforcement as much as they should,” she said.
At a time when public scrutiny of law enforcement is heightened and departments struggle with diversifying their ranks, it’s increasingly difficult to attract more women to the field, Ewins said.
“There are not enough women that are taking chances and applying for these jobs,” Ewins said. “There are so many qualified women and men out there. I just hope that one day we don’t have to look at gender to really be making selections.”
Fayetteville, North Carolina, Police Chief Gina Hawkins, who started her career in 1988 with the Atlanta Police Department, said she had to learn collaboration, relationship building and getting past her own “defensiveness” in the face of those who have preconceived notions about her abilities.
“If I want to be successful, I’m going to have to be extremely proactive in building relationships with people who don’t want relationships,” she said.
Hawkins said young female officers have to work harder than their male peers in order to “gain respect” and prove themselves, but it inevitably helps them to become more knowledgeable and efficient with more tools at their disposal.
CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.