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Exclusive: NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell discusses crime, homelessness & more in a candid conversation with CBS2

Exclusive: NYPD Commissioner reflects on 12 months on the job
Exclusive: NYPD Commissioner reflects on 12 months on the job 05:10

NEW YORK -- Keechant Sewell, the 45th commissioner of the NYPD, has been at the helm for 12, at times tough, months.

Through it all, New Yorkers have come to know of a serious, business-like leader, but little beyond that.

CBS2's Maurice DuBois met with her this week at the Bel Aire Diner in Astoria, Queens, not far from where she grew up, and touched on a wide range of topics in a broad and surprisingly candid conversation.

"I gotta tell you, I saw you give a talk at a private home last summer. You were engaging, expansive, thoughtful, funny. You were you were everything that you're not at the podium," DuBois said.

"I'm not engaging at the podium?" Sewell asked.

"When the cameras are rolling ... Why don't we see more of that, of you, in public?" DuBois said.

"I think your question is actually pretty funny about, you know, I'm, I'm everything I'm not in front..." Sewell said.

"That just kind of came out. I wasn't planning it that way," DuBois said.

"It's OK. Because you're not the only person to say that. So does she have a heartbeat?" Sewell said.

"Is there a pulse?" DuBois said.

"You know, she's a robot," Sewell said.

"Well, that's not unfair," DuBois said.

"Nothing's unfair. You're in a public position. You expect people to criticize or have their own opinion. This is New York, after all. I don't think people realize that that is me being real. This is who I am," Sewell said.

"But this is a different person," DuBois said.

"Now. I'm not talking about crime," Sewell said. "When I'm giving information about public safety, I take that very seriously ... There's a time to laugh. There's a time to be serious. And when I am focused on the safety of this city, I am serious."

"You're from just up the road, Queensbridge Houses, like a mile from here. In your wildest dreams, did you ever think that you would be at One [Police Plaza] in this role?" DuBois said.

"Every single day, Maurice, I have to say, I pinch myself that I would have been able to do this. Nassau County was phenomenal agency. I grew up there. I had, it was a leap to come here, I have to say, but to have the opportunity to lead the women and men of the NYPD is something that you just cannot pass up," Sewell said.

"The perception that this is the mayor's NYPD, what do you say to people who say that?" DuBois said.

"The whole city is the mayor's city ... The mayor's experience in the NYPD is invaluable, and I talked to him often about his perspective and what his experiences were here in the NYPD," Sewell said.

"Helpful, not a hindrance?" DuBois asked.

"It's not a hindrance," Sewell said. "You have to be able to take experience and advice from all corners. And I do that, and he has a public safety mandate that he imposed upon me and I intend to actually fulfill it."

Watch the full interview

Exclusive interview with CBS2's Maurice DuBois and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell 20:30

"The answer to the question, am I safer today than I was January last year? What's the answer to that?" DuBois asked.

"I would say absolutely. It's not that we don't have work to do. I understand that. Our major crime right now is being driven by grand larcenies, and we're developing a plan to be able to address that because we understand that's obviously, people are concerned about that as well," Sewell said. "With all the things that are in place without the structural changes that we've been asking for in legislation, we were still able to cut down those major crimes. We're at a 27-year high in gun arrests, our major crime arrests are up. Our trend is looking very good. So at the end of this quarter, we know we're going to be able to post a decrease in crime."

"What did you do to drive murders down? And could that be applied to other crimes?" DuBois asked.

"We did apply that to other crimes as well ... Violence is the biggest issue for us in the city," Sewell said. "We focus on the people, the places and the things that drive this type of crime. Our investigations were enhanced. We deployed resources serving areas, we have gang and crew stat where we talk about who was committing these crimes, we know who they are ... And that's what we focus on."

"Removing homeless people from the street. This is the mayor's idea to give them the treatment that they need ... What's that look like?" DuBois asked.

"I agree with the mayor that the streets and the subways are no place for people to live," Sewell said.

"Are you equipped to handle that, though?" DuBois asked.

"To take the people off the streets? We have done this before. The NYPD has always taken people who need mental health assessments off the street. So this is not new to us and we weren't caught off-guard," Sewell said.

"Why don't we see more cops walking the beat on a daily basis?" DuBois asked.

"We surge a number of officers walking the street in the city ... I think when people see an officer walking down the street, there's a connection there. There's also a feeling that, hey, things are safe, or this person is going to be there should something happen. So while 1,200 on foot, we have the officers on patrol that were also put in these areas to make sure that we have that visible presence. We do the same thing in the subway. We put about 1,000 extra officers into the subway system to be able to have officers on the platforms and the cars and actually riding the train," Sewell said.

"Let's talk about quality of life, the ongoing eternal New York City question, right? Bikes, in particular ... Bike riders on the sidewalk, going the wrong way, going through lights," DuBois said. "Almost nobody knows someone who's gotten a ticket for riding a bike and causing all this mayhem. Is it time to start enforcing that in a more aggressive way?"

"It's past time. We do enforce that," Sewell said.

"I never see it. No one I know has ever seen it," DuBois said.

"I don't know who you know, but we have been enforcing that," Sewell said. "Because I had a number of meetings with people and they're concerned about that ... We have to crack down on it. People are getting hurt. People are scared to walk into bike lanes because someone's coming in the wrong direction."

"Marijuana, everybody's talking about it. Illegal dispensaries all over the place," DuBois said.

"Well, we, as you know, we took a number of the, we call them weed trucks off the street in the city. Because we just take those because it's unlicensed vending, we just take them off the street ... We are addressing the stores as well. But it is a problem. Some of those stores are victims of robberies as well. So we recognize that we have to have the law catch up to what we're doing so that we're able to enforce the sale of marijuana," Sewell said.

"How do you get that? Do you have the manpower?" DuBois said.

"We do have the manpower," Sewell said.

"People power," DuBois said.

"We say staffing, right? But you don't have to be a man to be the man, so it's OK to say man. It's just why. But we do. We have a transportation bureau. We have officers on patrol who are addressing these issues as well because we know it's a concern," Sewell said.

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell addresses increase in major crime 03:59

"Starting salaries NYPD, I don't know, the public would be shocked to know -- 42 grand or so for an NYPD officer. On Long Island, it's in the 50s, right? In San Francisco, it's $100,000. Should cops be making more money in the city?" DuBois said.

"I don't think we pay our heroes enough. And I will say that every single day of the week, but obviously I don't negotiate contracts, but our officers every single day wake up and try to make the city safer. I cannot tell you how privileged I am to lead them," Sewell said.

"What do you wish you knew a year ago that you know now?" DuBois said.

"Oh, that's a good question. I think you have to continue to grow and learn every single day. I learned things from everyone, from the people who are doing the work of the civilians through the chiefs in our department. I think it's a constant process to grow," Sewell said.

"Final one here. I hear your hidden talent is that you're a serious chef," DuBois said.

"I'm pretty good with chicken dishes. If I make something like, I do a nice francese," Sewell said.

"With the intensity of this job, when's the last time you had a chance to actually do that?" DuBois asked.

"Over a year ago. Over a year ago," Sewell said.

"When's the next time you're gonna get to do it?" DuBois said.

"That remains to be seen. There's not a whole lot of time to do it. I'm sure, I'll tell you again, I'm a worker bee, so I'm truly focused on work," Sewell said.

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