keechant sewell
Who is NYC's first female police commissioner?
03:02 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

When Keechant Sewell became the first Black woman to oversee Nassau County’s detective division 15 months ago, she said she hoped to “inspire service.”

Sewell had come a long way. She spent her early years in public housing in Queens and started her law enforcement career on patrol just over the border on Long Island where she became a school resource officer and a police liaison to a shelter for troubled teens.

“What I’ve been able to accomplish, I hope it inspires women, young girls, men — anyone who wants to be an officer and be able to take advantage of the things that have been afforded to me,” she said at the time. “I would hope that they see representation. And representation matters.”

Next month, Sewell will become the first woman to ever lead the New York Police Department and the first Black person to lead the department in nearly 30 years.

She will take charge of the nation’s largest police department as the city continues to fight a violent crime wave that could be entering its third year while contending with calls to reduce the role of law enforcement in the city.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams announced Sewell’s appointment to the role of commissioner at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“We are at a pivotal moment in New York,” Sewell said at the press conference. “As our city faces the twin challenges of public safety and police accountability. They are not mutually exclusive.”

‘She’s at the top of the game’

Sewell, 49, has been with the Nassau County Police Department since 1997, where she climbed the ranks to become the Chief of Detectives after working a variety of assignments in both patrol and investigations. She became the first Black woman to lead the department’s professional standards section, which includes internal affairs, doing so for three years before her most recent promotion.

“I am mindful of the historic nature of this announcement as the first woman and only the third black person to lead the NYPD in its 176-year history,” Sewell said.

“I bring a different perspective, committed to making sure the department looks like the city it serves and making the decision, just as Mayor-elect Adams did, to elevate women and people of color to leadership positions,” Sewell said.

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, a former NYPD officer, told Newsday he felt like a “proud parent.”

“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.”

Nassau County acting District Attorney Joyce Smith has worked alongside Sewell and says she is up to the challenge.

“I can tell you that she starts ready she begins ready because she has done the hard work and the preparation that goes into being a leader in law enforcement and in the criminal justice system,” Smith said.

Smith said the two met in September 2020, when Sewell was promoted to lead the county’s detective division, overseeing more than 300 detectives.

She said the connection happened quickly because they share similar backgrounds.

“Both growing up in Queens, both coming from communities that didn’t always have the best relationship with law enforcement, didn’t always find ourselves in those conference rooms and in those meeting rooms where the decisions were made,” Smith said. “She understood the role and responsibility that we carry as leaders in the criminal justice system and in law enforcement.”

Stopping flow of guns is her top priority

Smith said Sewell has a track record of being able to thrive and grow under difficult circumstances, and that she’s well equipped for the challenges she’ll face as police commissioner.

“The reality is if she’s prepared to law enforce, it doesn’t matter where she’s planted. The fact is that she knows the job and she knows it well,” Smith said. “She understands the issues better than anyone else … She’s absolutely ready for that challenge. I have no doubt.”

Sewell said her priorities will include addressing the two-year rise in gun violence in New York along with community policing.

Speaking with CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Thursday morning, Sewell said she is “exhilarated” to be picked for the position and looks forward to working with the Adams administration. 

Sewell said she planned to assess the department, and will present more specific plans after that. But in the meantime, she said that stopping the flow of guns into the city is her “number one priority.” 

The reintroduction of the plainclothes policing unit, which has been criticized by some as an outdated policing practice, will mostly focus on gun crimes, she added. 

Sewell acknowledges a big issue is that guns are coming in from other states, but said she feels that “we certainly can stop the flow of guns.”

In the execution of any new upcoming policies, she emphasized that she wants officers to know that “if they are doing their jobs, the way they have been trained to do them, we will support them.”

 “I will always have the backs of my officers, one hundred percent,” she said. “We want the community to have the backs of the officers as well. We have to get them to talk to the community so we can build that morale and let them know they are doing the work that we asked them to do.”

CNN’s Jason Carroll, Sonia Moghe, Taylor Romine and Pervaiz Shallwani contributed to this report.