the city politic

Eric Adams, Micromanager

It’s clearer than ever that he’s running New York on his own.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters/Redux
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters/Redux

Keechant Sewell’s abrupt resignation as police commissioner on June 12, less than 18 months into her tenure as the first woman in the role, caught many people by surprise — including, apparently, Mayor Eric Adams. Here was a historic figure respected by the rank and file, tasked with leading one of the most important departments in the city at a time when crime has become a major quality-of-life issue. But the consensus among current and former NYPD brass is that Sewell was in an impossible position from day one with a wide range of important personnel and policy decisions blocked, seized, or second-guessed by City Hall.

“I was actually surprised she stayed on this long,” Michael Alcazar, a retired detective and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said to Gothamist. “It’s been clear for a while that Commissioner Sewell was being boxed in,” City Councilmember Diana Ayala told the New York Times. “You have a woman in leadership, and you are not allowing her to lead.”

Adams has refused to say why Sewell quit but lavished praise on her after the fact. “Not only did I believe she was a great professional, but I just liked her as a person,” the mayor told reporters. That public display of affection was not immediately returned by Sewell, whose farewell note to the department failed to mention the mayor.

Her departure naturally raises questions about how the NYPD is run and who, exactly, is running it. It is also the most prominent in a string of high-profile resignations from the Adams administration — a list that includes the first deputy mayor, chief housing officer, chief efficiency officer, chief counsel, communications director, and commissioners of social services and buildings — giving us the fullest picture yet of how Adams is governing the city as a whole. This is a mayor in tight control of matters small and large, and the question is whether the city’s problems are too various and entrenched for one man and his top advisers to handle.

Adams says he has heard grumblings about being a micromanager but doesn’t intend to change his style. “I am the only mayor … that has actually worked in a city agency. I know city government,” he has told reporters. “When I sit down with my DOE chancellor, when I sit down with the Department of Parks, when I sit down with everyone, I know what is happening. Every other mayor had to turn over those agencies and allow people to just run them the way they desire. That’s not how I function.”

There’s no department he knows better than the NYPD, where he served for 22 years. Former commissioner Bill Bratton, whose stints running the police department included being pushed out by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s, noted in a radio interview that “there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen in the NYPD at the moment” and that too much interference by City Hall can cause problems at the street level.

“It has not been clear since her appointment who actually is running the NYPD,” Bratton said. “Clearly, they should be responsive first to the police commissioner, who then clearly needs to be responsive to the mayor. But in this case, you’ve got a deputy mayor for public safety, Phil Banks, who was clearly very much involved in the day-to-day running of the organization. So that creates confusion.”

Banks’s name has come up a lot in the discussions surrounding Sewell’s departure. When asked by the Times about accusations that he was meddling in department affairs, Banks, Adams’s deputy mayor for public safety, said it was “untruthful gossip” and to call him “when you get a quote from Commissioner Sewell.” But members of the NYPD brass discovered that they could bypass Sewell and appeal directly to Banks and Timothy Pearson, who is the mayor’s senior adviser for public safety.

Adding to Sewell’s challenge was her status as an outsider. She was not just the first woman to serve as commissioner but one of only a few who hadn’t served in the NYPD. (At the time of her appointment, Sewell was chief of detectives for Nassau County.) That put her at a severe disadvantage in an organization dominated by internal feuds and power plays and decades-old friendships, family connections, and alliances. The struggles within the department are as intense, intricate, and unforgiving as the battles that go on in the city’s political clubhouses.

“The NYPD has their own customs, they have their own flag,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told me. “The police culture generally is highly organized, highly structured, bureaucratic, and based upon relationships internally, and it does not do well with outsiders coming in. Even from other agencies.”

Adams surely knew this when he appointed Sewell, who ended up on the losing end of bureaucratic battles, like a tiff with Juanita Holmes, a 36-year veteran of the NYPD then serving as chief of training, over whether the NYPD should drop a requirement that new recruits be able to run a mile and a half in just over 14 minutes. Sewell wanted to keep the standard, but Holmes appealed directly to Adams, who sided with her over his commissioner. The requirement was dropped, allowing 42 recruits to join the department who otherwise would have been kept out.

Another high-profile fight involved Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey, who has been accused of abusing his position by voiding the arrest of an ex-cop who had been caught chasing teenagers with a drawn gun in a 2021 incident. Sewell made the controversial decision to dock Maddrey up to ten vacation days as punishment, but Adams publicly weighed in on the side of his old friend.

Now she’s gone, raising issues about whether the train of senior officials leaving the Adams administration represents normal, healthy turnover or an administration in crisis. All modern New York City mayors have had to do a substantial amount of on-the-job training; few positions in the public or private sector have anywhere near the city’s vast army of 300,000 employees. Michael Bloomberg, whose eponymous company has 20,000 employees today, prided himself on delivering new staffers a warning (“Don’t fuck it up”) before giving them broad discretion to do their jobs. Bill de Blasio was a more hands-on mayor and famously disrupted his own chain of command, ruffling feathers by directly phoning a precinct commander to inquire about a political ally who had been arrested and ordering cops in his protective detail to pull over a driver for texting while driving.

Adams, by his own admission, has no qualms about immersing himself in the details of governing. He clearly prizes personal relationships and loyalty, giving important positions to close friends and family members. It remains to be seen whether his loyal insiders can meet the challenges that lie ahead of them.

Sheinkopf thinks Adams has time to get things right. “It’s not that I’m saying give him a break, but the guy needs to be given some room to work this out. Why? Because he inherited a city that was entirely broken. There’s no question about that,” Sheinkopf said. “He’s two years away from a primary, almost to the day. It means that he’s got to get this house in order very quickly, because the average Joe and Jane doesn’t care until it begins to appear that there’s a service distinction, i.e., the streets are unclean, people aren’t safe, and there’s no money for programs that people are used to. And he faces all three of those challenges.”

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams agrees. “I don’t want to be one of these sideline quarterbacks trying to second-guess what’s going on in the administration. I have to trust that the mayor does know how to handle his folks, and his management style is his management style,” she told me. “It looks like he wants to hold the reins a little bit closer than other administrations or the administration prior to him, and that’s fine if that’s his style. We’ve got to see what works for him. And we’re all still looking and we’ve got our fingers crossed. We need it to work.”

Eric Adams, Micromanager