Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1960s, Joseph Ayala usually saw Irish American police officers patrolling his neighborhood, where most residents were Black or Puerto Rican.
The officers were tall, imposing and inclined to beat up Puerto Rican teenagers like him if they suspected them of a crime, he said.
“We gave them wide berth. If we saw them coming, we’d go the other way,” said Mr. Ayala, 71. “If they were looking for us, we’d try to run away.”
When Mr. Ayala joined the Police Department in 1974, he said, Latino officers had to prove themselves to be accepted by white police. Not until this week, more than 30 years after his retirement, did Mr. Ayala see someone who looked like him at the helm.
On Monday, Edward Caban, 55, was sworn in as the city’s 46th police commissioner. The appointment came less than three weeks after Mayor Eric Adams named him interim commissioner. He succeeds Keechant Sewell, the first woman to hold the job, who resigned suddenly amid what allies said was frustration over micromanagement by Mr. Adams’s administration.
The mayor and Commissioner Caban are close: Mr. Adams, a former police captain who has been unapologetic about bringing back more aggressive tactics and making department personnel decisions, pushed for him to become deputy commissioner in 2022, bypassing ranks of chiefs. Unlike Ms. Sewell, who came from Nassau County and was new to department politics, Commissioner Caban has spent his entire career policing the city and knows the top leadership.
On Monday, Mr. Adams, who will need Latino support when he runs for re-election in 2025, hailed the appointment of Mr. Caban, whose family is from Puerto Rico, as demonstrating his commitment to diversity.
In 1957, there were only 40 Latino officers in the Police Department, according to the department’s Hispanic Society. That number began growing by the early 1970s thanks to recruitment drives, and now Latino officers make up the second-largest demographic group after white officers in the department.
They are also the second-largest demographic group in the city, with roughly 2.5 million people — 28 percent of the population — second to non-Hispanic whites. But Latinos in New York are no monolith. The number of Dominicans in the city has surpassed the number of Puerto Rican people — who are U.S. citizens — according to 2021 American Community Survey estimates. They were followed by relative newcomers: Mexicans, Ecuadoreans and Colombians.
Latinos have waited a long time to have their first commissioner, Mr. Ayala said, but, he added, that person should not be beholden to a mayor who has made his outsize role in the department a political calling card.
“This shows that Hispanic officers can reach the top,” he said. “It’s not going to change anything unless the mayor gives him the authority to run his own department. Unless that happens, you might as well have Bozo the Clown running the place.”
Others were jubilant. Anthony Miranda, the city’s sheriff, called Monday “a great day for everyone, especially Latinos.”
“Mayor Adams will hold a place in history also as the only mayor in his first term to make history in the N.Y.P.D. by promoting the first African American woman and now the first Latino,” he said.
Mr. Caban, who is married and the father of two teenagers, Ava and Eddie, was raised in the Bronx and assigned to the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx in 1991. He spent three decades climbing the ranks, becoming the highest-ranking Hispanic officer in 2022, when he became first deputy commissioner and Ms. Sewell’s second in command.
His father, Juan, was a detective who also served as president of the Transit Police Hispanic Society. On Monday, after Commissioner Caban was sworn in, his father stood next to him weeping, as the commissioner marveled at the path his career had taken.
“Police Officer Eddie Caban could not walk into a 4-0 precinct, look up at the leadership photos hanging on the wall and envision his future,” he said. His father pushed him to strive for higher positions.
“Take the test, son,” Commissioner Caban recalled his father saying. “‘Promotions will earn you a seat at the table.’”
He called becoming the first Latino commissioner “an honor of the highest measure.”
“I hope there is a young man, a college student or a military veteran who hears about my new assignment today, and it sparks the question, ‘What if?’” he said. “To them I say: The N.Y.P.D. wants you, the N.Y.P.D. needs you and your commissioner has plenty for you to do. So come join us.”
Commissioner Caban’s rise was not without some turbulence. In 1997, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency, recommended that he be punished after he refused to give a woman the names of two officers who were accused of cursing at her and threatening her. In 2006, the board found that he had abused his authority as a captain when he arrested a man on disorderly conduct charges after the man refused to provide identification.
The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest provider of criminal and civil services for indigent clients, said Mr. Caban has a lot of work ahead to win the trust of residents, who the society said fear the police are becoming too aggressive in poorer and more crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“This starts with acknowledging that law enforcement isn’t a panacea for many community issues,” the society said in a statement, adding that initiatives that examine crime as a public health problem are more effective than hard-line, traditional law enforcement.
But police and city leaders said that Commissioner Caban has ingratiated himself with the rank and file and many community members, who find him approachable and even-keeled. He has encouraged younger officers to take promotional exams.
In 2022, when he became first deputy commissioner, he gave members of the Gay Officers Action League his phone number and expressed genuine concern that the department had not promoted more gay officers, said Brian Downey, a detective and president of the group.
“He’s a remarkable people person,” Detective Downey said. “He wants to help people, which is why I think most of us become cops in the first place.”
Christopher Mercado, a retired lieutenant who teaches policing and public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, worked under Commissioner Caban in the 1990s.
“He was always energized by the job,” he said. “He liked working in policing, he was infectious about it, and as a rookie, you wanted to be around that.”
To Hispanic officers, his promotion “means a lot,” he said.
But, he said, Mr. Caban is “going to have a full plate,” with pressure to keep crime down and with a mayor who is deeply involved with the department.
“It would be foolish to think that City Hall would not have some kind of input,” he said.
Still, he said, Commissioner Caban “knows how to read people.”
“He knows most of the executives in the N.Y.P.D. and in City Hall,” Mr. Mercado said. “And when to push back on certain things.”
Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.