Watch WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to learn more and meet videographer Micah Danney and Risco Mention-Lewis
NEW YORK — When Carlos Jennings got out of prison in 2014, he wanted to kill the person who helped put him there.
“I wasn’t home seven days after doing 10 years in jail, and I’m in the car with somebody else, with a gun in my hand, trying to do something to somebody,” he said.
He was 22 and deep in the narcotics business in Queens, New York, when he fatally shot a man who had previously shot him in a failed paid hit, according to Jennings. He eventually served 10 years for the murder. When he got out at 35, he wanted revenge against the person who gave him up to police. It was logical to him then, tit for tat.
“My normal thing was to get a gun and kill,” Jennings said.
But before he found his target, he met someone who changed his mind, and then his life.
Jennings was paroled to Long Island, where he had family. His parole officer advised that he go to meetings led by Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk County deputy police commissioner. A small group, mostly men with criminal records, gathered each week to talk about what was going on in their lives.
Mention-Lewis called it the Council of Thought and Action. People who became members had astoundingly low recidivism rates.
Jennings remembers feeling that something was off with his thinking when he was released. He hadn’t seen his grandmother yet but he was already armed and ready to kill.
Mention-Lewis exploited the crack that had formed in his perception.
“She told me I had crazy house rules,” Jennings said. “The stuff I think is normal, people look at it as crazy.”
He listened. He kept going to the meetings. He was open with her — she asked him to promise that he wouldn’t kill again, and he said he couldn’t promise that. But he kept going to the meetings.
Jennings credits Mention-Lewis with saving his life and that of the person he was looking for. Now, two years later, he’s training to facilitate meetings. And he promised never to kill again.
“Coming to COTA and doing things positive, I can see now, like, above the cliff,” he said. “Like people hang on the cliff — I can see over the cliff, like yo, it’s a nice neighborhood here. So I’m just learning that and adjusting to it.”
“The idea is to build a new social moral network within the community,” Mention-Lewis said. “You want to reset the moral standard. You want the moral people to organize together so they can become more vocal than the criminals — people who are very visible in these neighborhoods. The very few criminals are more visible than the good and righteous. The work I do is trying to make the good and righteous more visible, which brings hope to the ones who are in the criminal world.”
Mention-Lewis was a prosecutor in Nassau County for nearly two decades until 2012, when she left in a crisis of conscience. Jailing people was failing to address what was driving them to commit crime, she said, and she didn’t want to keep contributing to the cycle.
She had founded COTA in 2008 as a grassroots movement — not a program, she’s quick to state — that she designed to rewire the thinking of the people whose behavior her office was supposed to punish. When she left the prosecutor’s office, she was offered a job as deputy police commissioner of neighboring Suffolk County. It felt like divine intervention, she said.
Mention-Lewis’ style is unique. She spends time in the streets, driving up to corners where trouble happens and getting to know the people who spend their time there. She visits the homes of young men who she knows are involved in criminal activity, sometimes intervening when a beef is brewing and could turn deadly. And every Wednesday she leads a COTA meeting in Wyandanch, a hamlet with the highest crime rate in the county.
She started working in Wyandanch in 2012. Since then, 150 people have attended at least three meetings, the only requirement to become a COTA member. Mention-Lewis checks for new arrests every six months. Among those with records, the recidivism rate is 10 percent, she said — a fraction of the 77 percent of people who are arrested nationally within five years of release from state prisons.
Crime decreased countywide in Suffolk over the past four years, but the drop has been most dramatic in Wyandanch. There were 15 percent fewer violent crimes last year than in 2012, and 31 percent less crime overall, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.
Despite this, Mention-Lewis insists that the crime rate is a flawed way to judge a community’s progress, in the same way that a person’s growth shouldn’t be measured by their lack of offenses. “It’s about individuals and groups of people changing their social networks, changing the way they think about life, and paying bills and raising productive children,” she said.
The meetings also act as networking events. Members share information about job training programs, openings with local unions and resources for developing hobbies like clothing design into small businesses. Just as personal hook-ups drew many into illegal money-making, they draw many away from it.
Mention-Lewis often goes into matchmaker mode, excitedly sharing names and numbers when an interest is proclaimed. Homeless COTA members have become homeowners and high school dropouts have graduated from colleges with honors.
While she rebuilds the community and its image of itself, she also tries to inspire new ways of thinking in her department. “They see how I can relate to people, and they see that there’s no harm in relating to some of these people that you never would have thought that you could even relate to,” Mention-Lewis said.
“… I guess what I’m trying to say to people is just because you lock them up doesn’t mean it goes along with treating them like a scumbag. I can lock you up for your behavior knowing that 90 percent of the time you’re not committing crimes,” she said. “And so I think building a new vision of communities and people — people of color in particular — makes for better policing, and I think that the precincts that have been working with me do see the value of the work.”
Inspector Mathew Lewis commands the precinct that covers Wyandanch. He agreed that a more intervention-based approach, which includes the meetings, is having success there. He noted the determination he said Mention-Lewis brings to her work. “She’s passionate about what she does, and you’ve got to respect somebody who’s passionate about something,” he said. “And I do enjoy working with her because of that.”
Mention-Lewis spent her early childhood in Boston’s predominantly African-American Roxbury neighborhood, then moved to the mostly white town of Hanson, Massachusetts when she was 11. “I was tough when I was in the other neighborhood, and when I moved to Hanson I had to learn that fighting was unacceptable,” she said. “So I learned that there were two cultures.”
Bridging them helped prepare her for the two worlds she now straddles. Mention-Lewis is the first black woman to have her job in Suffolk. The rest of the department’s top brass are white men.
Chief Stuart Cameron and his colleagues had to adjust to their new superior getting personally acquainted with local troublemakers. “It’s very unusual to have a deputy commissioner that’s out amongst the people like she is,” he said. “I mean, she’s really out — she’s out on the street corner, she’s out talking to people all the time. And a lot of the people she’s talking with are people that we have dealt with in the past and maybe even arrested. At first you’re like, why is this going on, why’s she doing this? But then when you understand what she’s doing and you see that it reaps results, it’s hard not to accept it.”
Mention-Lewis once explained criminals in a way that was a revelation to Cameron. “Their lives are lives of fear,” he said. “And I never even gave that any thought, what criminals think. You know, I just saw my role in the police department as: Someone commits a crime, you identify them, you arrest them and you try and put them in jail. So if a criminal’s afraid, they would definitely potentially be receptive to another law-abiding lifestyle where they don’t have to live in fear.”
Mention-Lewis describes crime as a flawed solution to valid problems, and describes herself as a problem-solver.
“Sometimes people see crime as a reflection of a person’s true self, but I see crime as a system that we use because we’re poor problem-solvers,” she said. “So if you have a person in your life who’s a good problem-solver, you’re much less likely to rely on crimes to solve your problems.”
Police Commissioner Timothy Sini called his deputy “a weapon” who uses her charisma to advance cutting-edge intervention strategies. He said many in the department value an approach that isn’t all cat and mouse.
“In some ways, they’ve been doing this, just not as formalized and not as deliberate,” Sini said. “The notion of sort of approaching someone because you think they may be the victim of or associated with crime, that’s not unique. Just the way that Commissioner Lewis has set up the structure and used evidence-based practices, there’s just always so much more utility to it.”
One strategy is custom notifications. A shooting victim or their friends or relatives might be primed for revenge. Sometimes enough is known about a situation but there isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. Mention-Lewis shows up at the home of the person or people in question. She is accompanied by a small team, typically two officers, two supervisors and someone from the community who has respect and credibility. They bring an official letter from Sini spelling out the consequences of any further criminal activity.
“Basically saying you’re not anonymous, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to,” Sini said. “You’re going to end up in jail or worse, hurt or killed, and there’s a better way. And she tries to connect them to resources to get their lives back on track, and sometimes that will be COTA.”
That’s one of the ways Mention-Lewis compels young men who live on the edges of society into her discussion forums. She also visits inmates.
“They can’t say, ‘Hey, I never got a chance, I never got a shot,’” she said. “How many deputy police commissioners come visit you in jail?”
In the meetings, she chips away at systems of perception and reaction that people have built for themselves. She uses the existing motivators in most people who engage in illegal enterprises to introduce new concepts:
- The individual as a corporation, their own chief executive officer, who should have a board of advisers for wise counsel.
- The imposter, or the misrepresentation of oneself by aggression, deceit or otherwise, which has outlived any purpose it evolved to deal with and now causes self-destruction.
- The rocks in the backpack — emotional traumas, often inflicted at an early age, that emanate from a reservoir of pain and play a false and negative tape in their host’s mind.
Mention-Lewis has a propensity for one-liner wisdom. “The strongest man you know is a woman,” she often says.
“The universe is always conspiring for your success,” she repeats at every meeting.
Meetings are attended by regulars, newcomers and some who check in every so often. Local politicians, social workers, uniformed police officers, professionals of many stripes — people hear about the meetings and drop in, sometimes at Mention-Lewis’ invitation and often by word of mouth. Sini has sat in.
“I found it extremely empowering, and relevant,” he said. “It’s for anyone. Certainly we’re targeting people who are at risk, because that’s the whole idea, but I benefited from it, you know? You’re talking about your feelings and thoughts and where you want to be in life and how to get there. There’s the famous saying that Commissioner Lewis is always saying: your rocks in the backpack. So it’s incredibly helpful for professionals, and it’s particularly helpful for folks who need that guidance.”
Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, knows Mention-Lewis and has sat in on a COTA meeting. Jacobs recognized in COTA aspects of workshops she’s taken to improve her own personal habits, “and was always curious where Risco had kind of figured this out, and how she had kind of made it available to people,” she said.
Jacobs added that any ongoing supportive community that is owned by the people it supports is powerful. “And the kinds of concepts, or precepts, that underlie COTA are — I mean, in my own life, I’ve kind of discovered — are the secrets of the universe,” she said.
She praised its focus on participants’ strengths and ambitions rather than their deficiencies. “Like, ‘Those people need something,’” she said. “A lot of us have problems with that and balk at that.”
A trap with such things is what Buddhists call spiritual materialism, she said, “where you take something that can be a really powerful practice, but you make it into ‘a thing’ — a thing that makes you right because you do it and somebody else wrong because they don’t,” Jacobs said. “Anything can devolve into a thing if you let it, and that would be a hazard in this too.”
It is to avoid the pitfalls that programs fall into that Mention-Lewis calls COTA a movement. If a newcomer utters the word program in a meeting, Mention-Lewis calls out, “Are we a program?” to which the room responds in unison with a resounding, “Movement!”
The movement’s biggest challenge is how it will grow. Jacobs said COTA shares elements of other initiatives that have had success, usually because of a charismatic leader or a treatment program that is carefully designed and applied. But both models are limited in scale by what makes them successful — a leader can’t teach their charisma and a good program loses its potency if it isn’t administered properly. The uniqueness that makes a phenomenon special is what makes it difficult to replicate.
“How do you share it in other settings when Risco isn’t going to be the one convening the meeting and modeling the behavior of leadership?” Jacobs said.
But COTA has spread since Jacobs visited, to three more communities on Long Island. The facilitators who run them are group members who volunteered, and are trained continuously by Mention-Lewis. She sustains the network on $60,000 a year from the state, which is divided between a case manager and an outreach worker. There are also five sites in Chicago, started in 2014: three in high schools and two adult sites, one of them inside a detention center. The city spends $400,000 annually to fund them; $80,000 for each site.
That kind of expansion means Mention-Lewis is figuring out how to make it work, Jacobs said, adding that COTA seems to be a hybrid between the fraught extremes of charismatic leader and strict program adherence. She has decoded cognitive behavioral therapy for people of any education level, Jacobs said, and is teaching others to do the same.
Another potential problem is the toxicity of participants who don’t want to be there. COTA isn’t mandated and it has no rules that can get a person kicked out, which helps ensure that its participants are motivated.
A motivational structure is key, according to Richard Gray, a psychologist and former federal probation officer who developed a celebrated treatment program for offenders with substance abuse disorders. “It seems that there are many participants who run with the opportunity and take advantage of the counseling provided,” he said. “So there is a behavior distinction made to separate the unmotivated from the motivated. Good call.”
Members tend to have home groups, but will travel to others. Malik Roberts, 20, met Mention-Lewis seven years ago in Hempstead, New York, where she founded the first group. He was in and out of trouble, and once served eight months in the county jail for burglary and assault charges. He now has a steady job and mentors teens. “Before COTA, I was ripping and running,” he said, “but now I just be chilling and getting my life back on track.”
Jacob Key, 20, of Wyandanch, got involved four years ago when Mention-Lewis enlisted him to help bring in other young people. “You can go there and be comfortable,” he said.
After leaving his first meeting in April, Kion Carter, 23, said he would go back. “Obviously, nobody likes cops. You’re standing in the middle of a known town that’s known for drugs and guns, you know?” he said. “Me personally — she’s a strong lady. She took it further than just being a cop. She looks at it as other people are in trouble and nobody else is putting their neck out there to help.”
Mention-Lewis focuses her energies on transforming Wyandanch by an evolution of consciousness, and looks for people who can steer the groups the way she can. “I think you have to have an innate wisdom to do this,” she said.
She entrusted the Chicago chapter to Charles Perry, 51. They met at a workshop organized by the National Network for Safe Communities. Perry served 19 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell cocaine. He got a college degree in federal prison and started rethinking his life. He did volunteer work when he got out and landed a job doing reentry work with released prisoners.
Perry said he found in COTA what he always felt was missing in the work he was doing. “What struck me was the language. The first part was that we should see ourselves as a corporation. That’s something that I had always thought about,” he said. “It meant that you were in charge of something larger than yourself. So when I started reading over COTA and listening to Ms. Risco, I said, ‘This is it.’”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visited a meeting once and told Perry she could only stay 45 minutes. “She stayed the whole two hours,” Perry said, “and then stayed another 30 minutes engaging the participants.”
And new adult participants react no differently, he said: “They come in and they’re just there because it’s part of the reentry process that they’re going through, but by the time they reach eight to 10 weeks, they’re telling you how this has impacted their lives — how they’re making better decisions, how they’re understanding that the way they react in certain situations really wasn’t them, but it was the imposter that was inside of them, and now they’re learning to control the imposter and be the president of their own corporation.”
Perry added that the verdict is still out on how young people will take to it. They’re not tired of consequences yet, he said.
Mention-Lewis said she’s undaunted by youthful folly. They require more intensity and communication, but it’s still a matter of pursuing them by helping them pursue their dreams. “This knowledge can change the world,” she said.
It has already changed the world for Carlos Jennings. “What I’ve learned is you have a choice,” he said, then paused. “The most valuable thing, I think, is love. I’m gonna be honest with you. True, unconditional love.”