When Mayor Eric Adams appointed Keechant Sewell to be New York City’s first woman police commissioner, he praised her “emotional intelligence”—and that’s probably the same quality that led her to announce her resignation this week, after only 18 months on the job.
Sewell’s appointment initially raised eyebrows. Compared with past NYPD commissioners, she rose to the top job from a relatively low rank (chief of detectives), and she hailed from the much smaller, albeit well-regarded, Nassau County Police Department. Nonetheless, in her short time in office, she won the respect of the city’s cops and praise from the police union for trying to make officers’ lives better. She leaves a stellar record of integrity.
Sewell did not state the reason for her departure, but she was surrounded, above and below, by mayoral cronies who seemed determined to undermine her. The concerns expressed by Carmen Best, the former Seattle police chief who had also been considered for the position, now seem prophetic: the NYPD commissioner does not report directly to the mayor but to a deputy mayor for public safety. That turned out to be Phil Banks, a longtime Adams ally who might have been considered for the job himself had he not been named an unindicated co-conspirator in a decades-old police department scandal.
When Sewell looked up, she saw Banks, and when she looked down, she saw Juanita Holmes, chief of training, who had also been a candidate for the top job and had undercut Sewell by getting the mayor and Banks to lower fitness standards. Holmes further undercut Sewell by changing around schedules to accommodate an appearance by rapper Cardi B, an event Sewell reportedly believed lacked dignity. To quell the controversy, Adams moved Holmes out of the police department, naming her probation commissioner.
Most recently, though Sewell frequently ignored disciplinary recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), she sided with the board’s decision to discipline Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey, the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer and another old pal of the mayor. Maddrey had previously been docked 45 vacation days based on a 2017 incident involving an off-duty, gun-involved altercation and related charges. In the latest case, he was cited for having abused his authority in 2021 when he intervened in the arrest of a retired former colleague on gun charges. Maddrey plans to fight the punishment—a loss of ten vacation days.
Sewell brought a dignity to the police department that it often lacks. Rarely has the NYPD had a commissioner who said so little but spoke so eloquently when she did, standing ramrod straight and looking the media and public directly in the eye. The Adams administration could learn from this quality and work harder to emulate it.
Upon announcing her retirement, Sewell told the New York Times, “This is New York. They’ll forget about me when I leave.” Let’s hope that she is wrong.
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