Risco Mention-Lewis knows her way around the streets. So well that the concept of turning bad guys from tough neighborhoods into good guys doesn't seem so far-fetched.
"People think it's hard, impossible," said Mention-Lewis, a Nassau prosecutor named last week to be Suffolk deputy police commissioner. "It's not impossible at all."
Mention-Lewis has reason to be optimistic. She's had success building on an innovative initiative started by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice to clean up an open-air drug market in the six-block Terrace-Bedell neighborhood in Hempstead Village.
In 2008, the Wheatley Heights resident created the Council on Thought and Action to help lawbreakers who otherwise might repeatedly be jailbound think differently about themselves and build new lives.
It would be a mistake -- an incredibly big one -- to think that the no-nonsense Mention-Lewis supports coddling lawbreakers. "Some people need to be in prison," she said more than once in an interview. "If you are violent, if you commit violent crimes, you need to be in prison."
But what happens after offenders -- violent and nonviolent -- are released? "They come right back home," Mention-Lewis, 51, said, many to neighborhoods where they will go on to commit more crimes before heading off to jail again.
The cycle, which plagued Terrace-Bedell for three decades, helps destroy neighborhoods, holding residents hostage to the repeated actions of a few. It also helps fuel mistrust between police and communities.
What would happen in those neighborhoods, Mention-Lewis thought, if the cycle could be broken? What would happen if offenders could be helped to live what she calls an "intentional life?"
At Terrace-Bedell, Rice offered 13 residents, nonviolent offenders who were filmed selling drugs, a chance to do something different. This came after a year of preparations, with police, local officials and the community. The district attorney's office hand-delivered letters to offenders, inviting them to what the community wanted to call "The Gathering."
There, offenders, also redubbed as "Brothers and Sisters," were surrounded by their neighbors. The message: We love you, but you've got to stop dealing drugs. We're not going to put up with it anymore. We will help you get your life together.
The initiative was modeled on a successful program in North Carolina. But even there, Mention-Lewis said, many of those offered the chance to change ended up headed back to jail.
She wanted something different in Hempstead. Mention-Lewis' solution: the Council on Thought and Action, a program she began to build starting with the 13 offenders, who (to her surprise, since she expected them to be younger) ranged in age from 26 to 60.
Four years after "The Gathering," 11 of the 13 have changed their lives. They work, mostly in manual jobs and some of them help council members.
What started as monthly meetings turned, at members' request, into Tuesday and Thursday meetings. And what began as an initiative for 13 Hempstead residents has, by word of mouth, turned into a life-changing lifeline for released offenders, for residents of Nassau and Suffolk and for distressed residents who have never been to jail at all.
By her count, hundreds of council members have successfully changed their lives -- and, by extension, their neighborhoods.
"In COTA, we don't say, 'Let's not go back to jail,' because that's thinking backwards," Mention-Lewis said. "If they're thinking that, they're never thinking forward; they're never thinking about a life."
County Executive Steve Bellone hired Mention-Lewis, who holds the second-highest police department rank, in part to seed the program in Suffolk.