During her short time on the job, New York City Police Department Commissioner Keechant Sewell has forged a positive relationship with rank-and-file officers at a time when morale among cops is at what union officials call an “all-time low.” Earlier this month, she became the first NYPD commissioner to receive the New York City Police Benevolent Association’s Person of the Year award – a move intended to forge an alliance with the new commissioner, who serves as a liaison between the police department and City Hall.
Sewell, the former Nassau County Police Department chief of detectives announced by New York City Mayor Eric Adams in December, is leading the roughly 36,000-member force through a period of hardship, union officials and police experts said. Rising crime during the pandemic, coupled with low recruitment numbers, anti-police rhetoric, and new officer accountability and bail reform laws have left New York City cops feeling undervalued. Sewell has been tasked with rebuilding morale in the department and advocating for its members, while also adhering to the politics of the Adams administration.
So far, PBA officials said they have been impressed with her ability to avoid any major conflicts and handle tough moments with professionalism and resolve.
“With all the challenges facing New York City police officers, it has never been more important for our union to have a positive, productive relationship with the police commissioner. We are fortunate to have that relationship with Commissioner Sewell,” PBA President Pat Lynch said in a statement. “Commissioner Sewell acknowledges these challenges, instead of trying to downplay them or explain them away. That alone is refreshing. But she goes further than that – she speaks up and explains to the public what police officers are going through.”
The award could also be seen as a way to curry favor with the commissioner amid contract negotiations with City Hall. The PBA, which represents 24,000 officers, is currently operating under a contract that expired in 2017 while awaiting a decision from an independent arbitrator and panel on the terms of its next contract. “Our goal, as always, is to obtain substantial wage increases that close the gap between New York City police officers and our local counterparts. We’re currently paid upwards of 30% less than other local departments, including agencies like State Troopers, (Metropolitan Transportation Authority police) and (Port Authority police) that operate within NYC,” said PBA spokesperson John Nuthall, adding that the bulk of the negotiations occurred under former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The city’s contract with the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union for the NYPD’s approximately 5,500 active duty detectives, expired in June. The union is seeking raises for its members, in addition to an increase in manpower and promotions, according to President Paul DiGiacomo. The city’s plans to shift retirees to a privatized Medicare Advantage plan threatens to stall contract negotiations for the city’s public employee unions, however.
DiGiacomo also had a positive review of Sewell’s performance thus far, but said, “We have a long road ahead of us.”
He added: “So far we have a dialogue. She’s receptive to the DEA and our concerns and needs,” noting Sewell has recognized a number of detectives’ death anniversaries, visited wounded officers in the hospital and attended street renamings for detectives. “She’s going on a regular basis to visit commands and she’s going up into the detective squads. She’s taken over this job at a very difficult time,” he said.
In some ways, the award lacks teeth and is commonplace in cop culture, according to Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant and Detectives’ Endowment Association spokesperson. “You have all kinds of fraternal organizations who love to give out awards,” he said, but noted that awarding Sewell “is a smart thing for the PBA to do … it’s an extension of an olive branch at a time when they’re going through a period of real turmoil.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a retired NYPD officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the commissioner’s powers have been weakened by the Adams administration, which appointed retired NYPD Officer Philip Banks to the newly created deputy mayor of public safety position.
“The commissioner’s job, especially in this administration with a deputy mayor of public safety – many commissioners wouldn’t even take the job under those circumstances – there’s probable cause to believe her strength is diluted. You have three commissioners: two in City Hall and one in Police Plaza,” O’Donnell said, referring to Adams, Banks and Sewell.
Officer misconduct complaints have risen in recent years. The New York City Council has implemented a number of officer accountability laws in recent years, including one that ended qualified immunity for some violations, which protected officers from being sued for misconduct. Sewell has sway in deciding whether to terminate cops accused of misconduct, along with issuing promotions and transfers. “At some point, there is going to be an incident, and (the union is) hoping that she can go to the podium and defend them in a way the last several commissioners did not,” O’Donnell said.
Lynch said former department heads have tried to “appease” criminal justice reformists and “treated engagement with the union as just another box to check,” he said. “We would sit down to talk, but they weren’t really listening. As a result, we have a police department in a near-constant state of crisis.” The PBA issued votes of no confidence against former Commissioners Raymond Kelly in 2004 and James O’Neill in 2019, after the latter fired former Officer Daniel Pantaleo for putting Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold.
Sewell, while accepting the award at the union’s annual ceremony, spoke about the hardships of NYPD officers’ jobs, acknowledging officers are “judged through a microscope, under a magnifying glass, using binoculars,” she said. “Many can criticize, few can understand.”