Detective Felicia Richards didn’t expect to cry. But in an emotional eulogy just over an hour after the second of two funerals for police officers shot dead last month in Harlem, tears began to stream down her face.
Standing on the podium in St. Patrick’s Cathedral was Keechant Sewell, who had served as commissioner of the New York Police Department for a month and a day. And for the second time, she paid tribute to an officer who died in the line of duty. The seven-minute eulogy is interspersed with warm recollections of Detective Wilbert Mora’s life and aspirations with expressions of grief shared in his loved one’s native Spanish.
To Commissioner Sewell, the first woman to lead the nation’s largest police force, speaking at the funeral of Detective Mora and his partner, Jason Rivera, carrying the weight of long tradition. And for at least some of those in the pew, her performance is beginning to answer questions about her readiness for the job: Miss Sewell has been ousted from a relatively minor post by Mayor Eric Adams. known person in the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department.
“If anyone was on the fence, she would have caught them that day,” said Detective Richards, president of the Guardians Association, a fraternal organization of black police officers. . “It’s not about what else is going on, it’s not about politics. It’s about the heart. “
She added: “I am not a crier. And it’s not like I’m crying because I’m sad, it’s like I hear something groundbreaking – and there’s Keechant Sewell. ”
The moment underscores the challenging landscape that Commissioner Sewell entered last month. The city and its new mayor are grappling with a surge in gun violence that began early in the pandemic and remains well above the historic lows of 2018 and 2019.
The number of shootings was steady in several neighborhoods, including one 11-month-old shot in Bronx; a series of attacks Related to Asian American Victims; and the killing of two officers contributed to increased anxiety about public safety. At the same time, relations between the police and some communities in the city remain strained, with radical politicians and activists continuing to call for vandalism or reform of the department.
In an interview, Commissioner Sewell said she wants her time as the leader of the department to be judged by how she addresses both safety concerns and what she called “fear-inducing conditions”.
Commissioner Sewell said: “The tragedies that have happened are huge. Her answers were brief and concise, and her office on the 14th floor of Police Headquarters in Manhattan is still rather sparsely decorated. “But the safety of the city has come first for us.”
Commissioner Sewell was immediately thrown into the fray. Hours after she officially started work, she accompanied Mr. Adams to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital after an officer was hit by a bullet on New Year’s Day while sleeping in his car.
Three weeks later, she walked out to another event to answer the phone and learned that two officers in Harlem had been shot. During a press conference that evening, she briefly wrote the script to show solidarity with the officers as they stood on the balcony of the hospital, waiting for news of Officer Mora’s condition.
Though she has transitioned from overseeing about 350 detectives on Long Island to more than 35,000 uniformed officers and 15,000 civilian employees in the city, her poise is striking almost immediately.
Sheriff Elton Mohammed, who has been with the force for nearly three decades, said the commissioner’s remarks at Detective Rivera’s funeral presented an opportunity for her to tap into her strengths in the role. role of a leader. He said she was able to “pass the rankings and profiles” – an important step for an outsider.
“It was probably one of the best eulogy I have ever witnessed by any police commissioner,” said Sheriff Mohammed, head of American Law Enforcement Jamaica. . “She broke that glass ceiling. Now, going forward, she will have many challenges ahead.”
Sewell, the department’s third Black commissioner, describes her current focus as “crime, crime, crime; violence, violence, violence. Her tenure to date has largely been spent reviewing existing strategies and looking at ways to promote safety and internal morale, she said.
However, she got into the role after long-simmering tensions between the police and the black community boiled over for months of protests across the city against police brutality and racism.
The ministry, like many parts of the country, has also struggled deeply to rebuild trust with some residents. Some police reform advocates said they were waiting to see if their concerns became a clearer priority.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Commissioner Sewell said she is continuing to assess areas for improvement, but added that she plans to focus more on reaching neighborhoods. “There are times when we go into a community and we tell them what we can give them,” she said. “But I want to hear from them what they want from us.”
But it is only when Commissioner Sewell confronts the difficulties that lie at the heart of the criticisms the department faces – in terms of accountability, transparency, discipline and treatment of people of color – that image More complete about her has just emerged, said Professor Jeffrey Fagan. at Columbia University, who studied policing in the city.
“There weren’t any tests,” Professor Fagan said. “And you don’t really know much about a person until they’ve been tested.”
In New York, police commissioners have at times struggled to balance support for officers of rank and file with demands from politicians and the public.
NYC Mayor Eric Adams . New Regulatory Authority
After Deborah Dannera black woman with a history of schizophrenia who was killed by police in her Bronx apartment in 2016, the former commissioner, James P. O’Neill, drew outrage about the sergeants’ union 5 weeks after his term as he spoke. report that “we failed” and that department protocol was not followed.
And when he was later fired officer whose work led to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island – after five years of intense frustration from protesters and many Democratic politicians over the delays – the city’s largest police union call for resignation. He step down less than two months later.
Commissioner Sewell has appeared to avoid angering the city’s unions so far.
She has yet to establish a clear public image, often standing in the mayor’s shadow. The commissioner rarely appeared on the morning news or local radio; Police officials attributed her absence to her tight schedule.
And she has yet to lead her own press conference at Police Headquarters in Manhattan or answer questions from reporters in several cities announcing public safety initiatives.
“Maybe in the future we can do a little bit more,” said Commissioner Sewell. “But right now, I am very focused on planning, analysis and initiatives.”
It was a departure from the approach of many of her predecessors.
Professor Fagan said previous commissioners had developed departmental strategies and adopted them with the mayor’s support. But Mr Adams is a former police captain who has made public safety a cornerstone of his agenda. “I don’t see her doing that because it’s a different mayor, she doesn’t have political credibility right now, and she might as well feel that she doesn’t have credibility in the department yet,” he said. .
Commissioner Sewell is the first leader since 2000 with no prior connection to the force; Other recent leaders have been more experienced in running the department’s rampant bureaucracy as well as the city’s politics and media.
However, some members of the department said they hope to see city officials give her a room to make her more independent.
“Let her manage when you hire her,” said Detective Richards. “Let her bring her pen. Stop giving her this fat pencil and eraser – and go around behind her with a red pen. ”
The participation of Philip Banks III, deputy mayor for public safety and a close adviser to Mr. Adams, also added questions about Commissioner Sewell’s powers. Mr. Banks was heavily involved in overseeing a number of internal changes last month, personally informing several senior officials that they would be replaced.
But Mr Adams insisted that the commissioner reports directly to him and said in a statement she had “his absolute trust.” Commissioner Sewell said in the interview that she appreciated the input from both men.
As the first woman to head the country’s largest police department, observers say the commissioner’s tenure is likely to come under scrutiny.
Dennis Jones, a former Police Department detective, advocates for changes to improve security as an almost ritual to deal with stress, tension and struggle. “All eyes will be on her for a very long time.”
Susan C. Beachy research contributions.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/nyregion/keechant-sewell-nypd-commissioner.html NYPD Boss’s First Week: Tragedy Hastily, Rise in Review