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Morning Spew

Let’s Not Give Keechant Sewell the Glossier Treatment

And more clear-eyed links to carry you into the weekend.

10:15 AM EDT on June 16, 2023

Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell at Police Headquarters on Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2022 to present citations to law enforcement and civilians who aided in the capture of Frank James, who allegedly shot several people aboard an N train at the 36 St station in Brooklyn last week.
(Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

On June 12, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell announced that she was stepping down from her role—her final day at the job will be June 30. Immediately, reporters and commentators filled in the blanks: City Hall had subbed Sewell in for the guy Adams actually wanted. She was "micromanaged," a "puppet." One disciplinary feint against the wrong high-ranking NYPD officer, and it was over for her. Now, as her tenure as the only woman to run the 178-year-old department comes to an end, an interesting kind of meaning-making has been creeping its way into the narrative around Sewell, pushed along by Sewell herself. It's not quite girlbossification—I'm not sure you could give a cop the Glossier treatment—but it's something that certainly harkens to that era.

The most interesting example comes in the form of a Gothamist story about a speech Sewell gave in November 2022 to the ​​Police Women's Endowment Association. Gothamist described the speech, framed as a letter to the “second woman to be the New York City police commissioner,” as Sewell "laying bare her professional battles with sexism during her time in the Adams administration." 

In the speech, Sewell warns her hypothetical successor (in a cadence that doesn't not give slam poetry vibes) about all of the ways she will be invalidated, nitpicked, "second-guessed," and managed from below as a woman heading the NYPD. "WNBA legends get challenged by weekend pickup hobbyists," she said. "You will get free unsolicited personal advice: 'Your hairstyle is wrong, you look tired, already worn out in less than a year, you should wear different clothes, you’re not qualified, you are in over your head.' None of that is true."

And yeah, all of that makes sense. I'm sure those experiences were very uncomfortable and unpleasant, even painful, for Sewell. That narrative has been embraced by her supporters. "You have the first female police commissioner and she’s surrounded by males who have her in check," an anonymous source told the New York Post in a report published days before Sewell's resignation. "The patriarchy is in control. Sewell is not in control of the NYPD." In their first public appearance together since she announced her resignation, Adams compared Sewell to his sister, and praised her "poise," "spirit," and "how calm she was." 

But what's actually worth paying attention to when thinking about Sewell's time as the police commissioner is what she did with the control she had—and in this, Sewell wasn't so different from her predecessors. 

She oversaw the return of stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing to New York City, defending the unconstitutional stops as "legal and effective." And then there's her view of disciplining bad cops.

One detail that comes up again and again in these writeups about Sewell's departure is that, City Hall aside, Sewell was very popular with the NYPD's rank and file. When she appeared in front of a room full of 200 cops the day after she announced her resignation, she was greeted with a minute-long standing ovation. Back in September 2022, after presenting her with the NYC Police Benevolent Association's "Person of the Year" award, then-union prez Pat Lynch "gushed" to the New York Post about Sewell: "She listens. She implements. And she actually cares about the cop on the street." The thing is, a large part of caring about "the cop on the street" translates to "letting shit slide." Sewell actively worked to rewrite the NYPD's disciplinary matrix to lessen the severity of punishments for cops found guilty of misconduct and rejected recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board at a much higher rate than her predecessor. 

If anything, her orientation toward police discipline proves that while Sewell was the first woman to be in charge of the NYPD, she was also something much more ordinary: the most recent cop to hold the job.

Here are some links you could read, not to give you unsolicited personal advice:

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