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Editorial: Bellone lets the pros police Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks to newly

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks to newly appointed police commissioner Edward Webber, second right, and newly appointed deputy police commissioner, Risco Mention-Lewis, as chief of the department, James Burke, left, looks on in from of Yaphank Police Headquarters where they were officially announced their new positions. Credit: James Carbone

The reality of policing in this economy is tied tightly to budgets and cost savings. So it comes as no surprise that Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone, despite interviewing candidates from outside the county police department, has picked a budget-savvy insider as his police commissioner. Bellone is nominating Edward Webber, who has been serving as acting commissioner since January.

Webber, a four-decade veteran of the department, started as a patrol officer and has held a variety of jobs, including an unusual 19 years at the level of chief. He is a certified public accountant and holds a master's degree in business administration.

Bellone says his choice was based largely on the changes he has seen in the department since Webber took over as acting commissioner. A $2-million reduction in overtime was a key factor. So was Bellone's perception of a rise in morale. Former County Executive Steve Levy and the Police Benevolent Association were always at sword's point. So far, Webber and the PBA have been working together better. The union waived some contractual rights to help Webber manage the department more flexibly -- as in the case of putting together a response to a worrisome pattern of burglaries in West Babylon taking place at night, while homes were occupied. Under Levy, the PBA was disinclined to waive anything.

Bellone intends to let Webber -- and Chief of Department James Burke -- run the police. That's as it should be, so long as Bellone continues to monitor the department's overall policies and performance.

Along with picking Webber, Bellone is taking an innovative approach to crime. Instead of just suppressing it by locking people up and watching them later fall back into crime, he wants the police to lead in reducing that recidivism. So he's naming Risco Mention-Lewis, a veteran Nassau County prosecutor, as deputy commissioner. She has a long history of locking people up, but she wants to apply to Suffolk the techniques she has used in Nassau to reduce recidivism.

Her approach is to call in people who have committed crimes and served time, and offer them a stark choice. One is intervention, which includes help in putting together plans for their lives, to become contributing members of the community. The other choice, if they decide to commit more crime, is suppression, which means prosecution and prison. She also created an ongoing social network, the Council of Thought and Action, to build safer, more supportive communities.

She's passionate and persuasive, but she's selling a good idea that's likely to meet resistance in a paramilitary organization focused tightly on arrest and conviction. Bellone promises to make sure other county departments work closely with Mention-Lewis. But he'll also have to see to it that Webber and Burke support her inside the department, to get buy-in from police officers. Given her long prosecutorial experience, they should tap her expertise on more traditional crime-fighting strategies, as well as on recidivism reduction.

Webber brings fiscal know-how; Mention-Lewis offers innovation and energy. It took Bellone a while to pick Webber. Now the county executive owns the police department, but he has to keep his promise and let the police police.