Keechant Sewell has taken the mantle as NYPD’s police commissioner for one year now — leading the more than 34,000 officers through a wave of crime exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also serving as its guiding voice in a pledge to return to community policing.
amNewYork Metro sat down with the top cop inside her office as she both looked back over 2022 and forward to 2023.
Sewell was affable, jovial and good-humored as she began the interview in her One Police Plaza office — showing a side of the police commissioner not often seen at press conferences often marred by crime and grief. She gave a sense of who she is behind the badge, the pride she takes in her role, and goals she has for the future.
With small Wonder Woman and female police officer statues looking on from her desk giving a glimpse into her personality, Sewell recalled Dec. 15, 2021, the day she made her first public appearance at QueensBridge Houses to a room overflowing with press.
“On Dec. 14, the story leaked that I was going to be the commissioner. Someone sent me a picture of myself on a TV set that said, ‘Nassau chief, maybe New York City Police Commissioner,’ and I was actually in the field that day, and I said, ‘oh my goodness,’ you know, it’s up. That’s it. It’s done. And then as I was driving home, I was getting more texts and more texts. ‘Is it true? Is it true? Is it true?’ And I couldn’t answer and then I got a call from the mayor’s team, and they said, that’s it, the jig is up,” Sewell said with a smile. “When I finally got home, I actually said there’s got to be somebody in my bushes or something. So, I actually went into the house and my phone rang off the hook—and my house phone never rings—and it rang off the hook with so many different media outlets. And then they [the mayor’s team] just told me tomorrow, meet us at Queensbridge Houses for your announcement and so it was rushed for me. So, that day for me kind of went by like a blur. There were so many people on the street, and we’re being jostled and I’d never had anyone ever walk backwards with a camera facing me.”
Sewell revealed that while it’s a role she is incredibly proud of, being the NYPD commissioner was not her original goal. She explained that she originally yearned to be an attorney, but law enforcement was brought to her attention by a colleague while studying at school.
“She says Nassau County is having a police test. I said where is Nassau County, because I was from Queens. I didn’t know where Nassau County was, I thought the NYPD patrolled the whole state,” Sewell joked. “So, I went through the process of the examination and even when they called me for the investigation, I wasn’t sure if I was going to take the position or not. But looking back, obviously, it was the best decision I ever made.”
It wasn’t easy sailing into the position for the city’s top cop. Sewell spent her first day—New Year’s Day 2022—in a hospital visiting an officer injured in a shooting. There, she was thrown from the frying pan of media questions and judgment to the fires of city violence.
As it turned out, Sewell had a similar experience this past New Year’s Day, responding to the Midtown machete attack involving three police officers.
“It’s really an example of what our officers face on any given day. They happen to be New Year’s for both events. But for me to be able to speak to the dangers that our officers face is so important and to be able to show the public the courage and valor of these women and men in this police department. It’s surreal to be in that environment in the hospital again a year later. But it only makes me even more appreciative of the people that we ask to do this job,” Sewell said.
Over the course of 2022, the NYPD has seen an over 17% drop in shootings and an over 12% drop in homicides. However, statistics also show that robbery, assault, burglary, and grand larceny has increased by 23.5% since the previous year. Commissioner Sewell commented on this success and the work that still needs to be done.
“We are trending in the right direction, which we knew. This isn’t happenstance, it’s not an accident. We had a plan. We had a strategy. We drove that strategy and we have the results that we’re seeing. And we’re going to continue to see those numbers go down. In the beginning of the year, we were at 45%, I think the second week of February with 48% year over year, and for us to be able to cut that in half by the end of the year, with all the challenges that we have had, the structural changes that we wanted to see happen in the law, we weren’t able to get that this year. We have had some tremendous success,” Sewell said. “Our shootings are down, our homicides are down, our number of victims are down. Our gun arrests are at a 27 year high. And we are actually down in major crime for the month of December in the fourth quarter. We’re going to be down in crime as well.”
Over the course of 2022, the NYPD confiscated some 7,000 guns in the ongoing war on gun violence amid a rising tide of ghost guns in which parts can literally be 3D printed at home to make deadly weapons. The top cop also commented on this, giving a sneak preview into more soon to be announced initiatives.
“We’re always evolving and innovating. We have some new strategies that we’re going to be announcing this month as well. The mayor is going to announce them in his State of the City address and we’re going to do ours in the state of the NYPD address this month as well. But we have a unit that’s dedicated to ghost guns, but our gun violence suppression division, our gun violence strategies, and partnership all working together. We’ve seen the results that we’re talking about now. And we’re going to see more of that in the future,” Sewell revealed.
In addition to remaining steadfast on tackling crime, Sewell spoke on the personal aspects she hopes to continue bringing to the NYPD from her time in the Nassau County Police Department: community policing. Sewell states that she hopes to further develop relationships between her officers and the public.
“Nassau County is a very service-oriented Police Department. I’ve changed batteries in someone’s smoke detector, I’ve done food shopping for someone as a police officer because that is just what we do in addition to fighting crime and investigations. I want to bring a little bit more of that into New York City. The NYPD are phenomenal at what they do. I think a lot of that going forward, I want to focus a lot more on client service, customer service and making sure people have a user-friendly experience with their police department that they feel connected with their police department,” Sewell said.
As the conversation wore on and the commissioner revealed small tidbits of information about herself, she joked “People think I am far more interesting than I actually am,” yet it also became evident she cares more deeply about making a significant impact on the department than she does to simply serve as its public face. Somewhat reluctant or not, as the department’s first female leader, and a leader of color, Sewell will undoubtedly be seen as a role model for Black and Brown individuals across the country.
“If I can inspire anyone to reach for a position that they would not ordinarily believe that they are able to achieve, that means something to me, that’s important,” Sewell said.
Since taking the helm, Sewell has also been very public in regard to her distaste for certain bail reform laws. While having called them well meaning, she also made it clear that she won’t back down from charging against repeat offenders. Still, she also brought the talking point back to the goal of having an even more connected police force between officers and city dwellers.
“I’ll keep beating the drum for judges to be able to have the discretion to determine if someone’s a public safety risk before they release them from custody. That’s so important and a major driver of the crime that we’re seeing in the city is due to recidivism. We keep arresting the same people over and over again. It’s a problem for us,” Sewell said. “So, I think we have to continue to make sure that we provide the best possible environment for our police officers. But I also want to make sure that the city feels connected to the police department. I won’t give up what we’re going to talk about in our state of the NYPD address but there’s a number of strategies that we’re going to be talking about ways using technology to connect with the community. So just as a better overall experience for the public to have with their police department.”
As the conversation came to a close, amNewYork Metro asked Sewell what she would say about herself to the public. Despite jesting that “I probably wouldn’t say something,” she doubled down on how thankful she is to be where she is at this moment.
“I will say, faced with a number of challenges that the NYPD has this year, every single day. These officers and civilians, I want to make sure we include them because they are equally as important, they go out there and do everything they can to make the city safe. They’re invested in the city. I am truly honored to be in this position at this time to make the changes that we will make,” Sewell said.