Women’s history month didn’t kick off well in the New York City Police Department after Juanita Holmes, the department’s chief of training, convinced Mayor Eric Adams and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Philip Banks to eliminate the 1.5-mile timed run required to complete academy training because “it was holding back otherwise qualified candidates—especially women.” In agreeing with Holmes, Banks and Adams, a retired NYPD police captain, overruled Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, who opposed lowering the standard.
This is the second time in less than a year that the NYPD has reduced physical fitness standards for police officers. The current application process includes a Job Standards Test (JST), a timed event that includes six activities, including a 600-foot run, that must be completed nonstop within four minutes and 28 seconds. A Candidate Resource Booklet and a video of a woman demonstrating the tasks are available online. The JST is an entry requirement; the 1.5-mile run is an academy exit requirement.
Running is a staple of police academies throughout the United States and the world. The timed run is not meant to test whether an officer can actually run 1.5 miles to catch a particular suspect but rather to gauge whether the candidate is fit enough to perform patrol duties. Holmes knows this. She and 18 members of her family, including four younger sisters, were required to run during their academy training and to pass the then-existing physical requirements.
Lowering standards for NYPD officers is troubling enough, but that issue is playing out against a larger concern: a power struggle seems to be emerging, in which Adams and his deputy mayor, Banks, exert increasing control over the force, undermining the commissioner whom Adams himself picked.
In 2020, Holmes was appointed chief of patrol, making her the first woman (and first black woman) to hold this position. When Adams stated during his mayoral campaign that he would appoint the first female police commissioner, Holmes was one of three women viewed as likely candidates and was said to have been the only NYPD insider still under consideration late in the selection process.
But Adams instead reached outside the department, selecting Sewell, who, as chief of detectives, held a lower rank than Holmes in the far smaller Nassau County Police Department. A day after Sewell’s appointment, Holmes was transferred from chief of patrol to chief of training. This loss of prestige prompted speculation that the move was meant to steer her into retirement. Sewell, despite coming to the NYPD as an outsider and with a lower rank than Holmes and other women considered for the position, seems to be popular today with the public and with police officers.
It was during the mayoral transition that questions arose about who would actually be running the NYPD. Former Seattle chief Carmen Best, a finalist for the position, suspected that if she were chosen, she would be forced to report to a deputy mayor. Adams denied this claim, but the appointment of Banks seems to have confirmed Best’s instinct.
Banks had maintained a low profile until recently, but now, in addition to his overruling of Sewell, he has inserted himself more forcefully into the city’s public safety apparatus. Last week, he held the first of what he plans as weekly City Hall briefings to “enhance the transparency” of “his public safety team” and address public concerns. On the dais with Banks were Commissioner Sewell, Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, Sheriff Anthony Miranda, and Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina. Arrayed behind him were about a dozen representatives of various agencies—including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Department of Social Services, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the city’s Environmental Protection Agency—that most New Yorkers don’t think of in a public safety context. None of the agencies attending report to Sewell, but they are now at least partly answerable to Banks. Banks read from a prepared text, and the event was highly choreographed until Politico’s Joe Anuda asked him to explain how his role differed from that of the police commissioner. Banks demurred.
Like Holmes, Banks was once a position away from being named police commissioner. But even with the support of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife Chirlane, he resigned as chief of patrol in 2014, in advance of reports that the FBI was investigating $300,000 of unexplained cash in his bank account and that he had been named an unindicted co-conspirator in a scandal involving the trading of cash and gifts to NYPD officials in exchange for favors.
Within a week of Holmes’s defying the NYPD command structure to overrule Sewell, reports revealed that she had registered to take the test for chief of police in the Suffolk County villages of Southampton and Lloyd Harbor—two wealthy, low-crime areas whose cops are among the state’s highest-paid and whose chief in 2016 earned close to $300,000 annually. Should Holmes retire, though, Sewell will still be left to contend with Banks. Could the battle over the 1.5-mile run have been less about fitness than about who really runs the NYPD?
(UPDATE: Late today, Mayor Adams announced the appointment of Holmes as commissioner for the Department of Probation.)
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images