Keechant Sewell’s selection to become the first woman and third Black police commissioner in the history of New York City was greeted with cautious optimism, and much doubt that the appointee will survive the nation’s No. 1 metropolis.
“I smiled with pride,” constitutional law professor Gloria Browne-Marshall told me. “I want her to do well, but New York is a troubled city with a conservative police department. Although she has been chief of detectives in Nassau County, Long Island, and a member of the New York-New Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, my enthusiasm over this historic news is mixed with concern due to the web of politics, race and gender bias awaiting her.”
NYPD “will push back against (Mayor Eric Adams’) appointment and try to undermine his authority. Race matters,” said Philadelphia-area civil rights lawyer Stanley O. King.
Why are so many people doubtful of Sewell’s chances? History plays a role.
Women leading police departments are not novel this century; they are serving or recently served as chiefs in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Newark, New Jersey.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who was on Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president, served as police chief in Orlando.
But notably, three chiefs who are women resigned in 2020 in Atlanta, Seattle and Portland, under siege because of police slayings of Black people, citizen protests or calls to cut their budgets and staff.
Policing is hard everywhere in America, and legitimate questions have been raised as to whether policing is steps behind 21st-century reality. Nowhere is policing more taxing than New York City. Mind you, amazing successes have occurred in my native hometown. In the past three decades, murders fell from more than 2,000 in 1990 to 468 in 2020, according to NYPD stats.
But the history of policing in New York City is also fraught with racial tension, from the Central Park jogger case, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and the controversial “stop and frisk” program.
Adams, a former NYPD captain, joined the force to do his part to reform the system. He said he was beaten by cops as a boy.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is of Irish and Italian heritage, married to a Black woman and father of a mixed-race son, was excoriated by the police union because he said he gave his son “the talk,” advice to be overly respectful and calm when engaging police to avoid arrest, assault or death.
That is why some of my blue-collar friends (homies), who worked in law enforcement and are retired, and white-collar colleagues in law and media were skeptical of Sewell’s chances of success at the top in the Big Apple.
“Adams is signaling going back to what could be onerous policing,” said Blanca Vasquez, a recently retired media professor. “The ranks will heavily resist this appointment. The current commissioner is one of their guys.”
My colleagues and buddies remember how obstructionist the police union could be. In September 1992, up to 10,000 off-duty police officers and their supporters jammed lower Manhattan to protest then-Mayor David Dinkins’ proposal to create a civilian review board to investigate citizen complaints of police misconduct.
Many cops, some drunk and plain-clothed, called Dinkins and two Black city councilwomen racial epithets. Then-Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, a longtime voice of white, blue-collar New Yorkers, said he witnessed the cops’ bad behavior.
Three decades later, is the climate different in American big cities? Cities have become generally safer and more entertaining than in the 1990s. White flight to suburbs was 1960s and 1970s-ish; white in-flight to big cities, aka gentrification, is in.
For the justified skeptics, consider this: Sewell is right out of a DC or Marvel superhero comic book: A girl from Queens who becomes a plucky crime fighter on Long Island and now is tapped to do the impossible by managing the unmanageable city.
Her assignment is daunting. But remember the closing lines of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”: If she can make it there, she’ll make it anywhere.
Wayne Dawkins, a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University, covered the police beat for Gannett newspapers for 16 years.
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