Keechant Sewell and Mayor Mayor Adams at the press conference announcing her new position as New York City Police Commissioner in December, 2021. Photo: Jimgerbig via Creative Commons 

Keechant Sewell, an outsider at the New York Police Department until the very end, has abruptly resigned as commissioner of the nation’s largest police force. The former chief of detectives of the Nassau County Police Department, a native of Long Island City, lasted just about a year and a half on the job after an ascent that had been described as historic. Yet what was historic about it, exactly?

Sewell broke a glass ceiling, that’s for sure. She was the first woman to hold the job of NYPD commissioner, and no one can take that away. Nor can anyone argue that it makes no difference that she headed an agency that barely a decade ago was found to be systematically and routinely violating the constitutional rights of Black and brown New Yorkers with its stop-and-frisk policy.

But here’s a question: what does it mean to be a good leader, particularly when leading the body that holds the local monopoly of the sanctioned use of force? Certainly, police officials are judged based on crime trends and financial metrics like overtime usage, but what about accountability? To whom is the commissioner’s primary responsibility, to the officers in the department and the mayor that appointed her, or to the public that the department is meant to protect and serve?

Governor Kathy Hochul, MTA Chair & CEO John Lieber, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell and Mayor Eric Adams. Photo: Marc A. Hermann for the MTA via Creative Commons

I would argue that Sewell set herself apart not by bringing the department forward but setting it back, undoing gains for accountability, transparency, and restraint. She was set to preside over a record-breaking overtime budget, beyond even the NYPD’s already normally engorged overtime budget, as rank-and-file cops are caught on tape about how easy it is to bilk the system. Her department has allegedly been in noncompliance with the City Council’s landmark surveillance transparency law even as it’s added robot dogs and GPS trackers launched from guns to its arsenal.

Last year, Sewell rejected over half of the disciplinary recommendations sent to her by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a relatively toothless oversight agency that largely depends on the commissioner to enact its recommendations, which are reached after it conducts its own investigations. In shooting down over 400 cases brought to the department by the CCRB, Sewell ended up with about half the disciplinary actions taken by her two white, male predecessors. She provided written explanations for about 70, letting officers off the hook in hundreds of cases without even presenting a rationale.

These, by the way, aren’t cases where the discipline would have been terminations or suspensions or even demotions; many of the CCRB’s recommendations were as paltry as lost vacation days or additional departmental scrutiny (never mind the so-called disciplinary matrix that the NYPD touted a couple of years back). Sewell wasn’t just ignoring the matrix: late last year, she announced plans to revise it to make it far less harsh, penalizing something like the unlawful search of a home, for example, with just five lost vacation days.

To her credit, the spat that got her tossed out of Mayor Eric Adams’ good graces appears to be her attempt to hold Chief of Department Jeffrey B. Maddrey — the highest-ranking uniformed member of the NYPD — responsible for abuse of power when he was chief of community affairs in 2021. You can read more detail about that whole debacle here, but to summarize, Maddrey appears to have intervened after the arrest of a former subordinate who was being held for pulling a gun on a couple of teenagers.

Perhaps we’ve all become desensitized to misconduct, but if these accusations are accurate — and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are, not to mention the CCRB investigation and substantiation of the claim — then Maddrey committed a gross abuse of power. For that, Sewell was set to impose… a loss of six to ten vacation days, in keeping with the laughably lax matrix. Even that seems to have been too much for Maddrey and his old friend Adams, who stood by him, saying that the top cop “handled it appropriately.” It now seems that this clash, along with the fact that Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Philip Banks ( once named by the FBI as an unindicted co-conspirator in a corruption case) was leapfrogging her decision-making, seems to have pushed her out.

That the crux of the disagreement seems to have been whether to give Maddrey a slap on the wrist or not highlights the extent to which there is very little real daylight between Sewell and other top officials where it really matters, and speaks to the limits of representation alone as an antidote to retrenched power structures. Sewell was never going to challenge the NYPD status quo just because she is who she is. She was chosen by a former police officer to more or less do the same thing that police commissioners before her did, which is to zealously guard the legitimacy and power of the police department, even at the cost of accountability.

First Deputy Commissioner Edward Cabán will temporarily take over. Photo: Alec Favele 

Maybe Sewell would contend that this is unfair, that the reason she quit is because she was stripped of executive authority, in which case the question is: what was she there to accomplish? Was she a figurehead? Any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem like the mission of the NYPD’s first Black woman commissioner was to transform the department. It was to just give it a new coat of paint. It remains unclear who will be tapped next, although First Deputy Commissioner Edward Cabán will temporarily take the reins. What’s clear is that while it certainly matters who the next commissioner is, it matters much more what they commit to do and how they understand their job.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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