CROWN HEIGHTS—Though he grew up in Flatbush and spent most of his law enforcement career bopping around the borough, when NYPD Capt. John Lewis was tapped to take up the top spot at Crown Heights 71st Precinct, it was less of a new assignment and more of a homecoming.
"It's nice, because this is where I started, and this is where I first learned to be a police officer, besides the academy," Lewis said. "Out on the street, this is where I started."
Since then, he's been busy.
After his rookie year, Lewis went "down the block" to East Flatbush's 67th Precinct, doubling back to the neighborhood after he made sergeant and working nights from 1994 to 1999.
Steeped in Crown Heights nightlife, Lewis spent two years in Central Booking, two more years in East Flatbush, then moved up to Detective Squad commander in the 61st Precinct and then Coney Island's 60th Precinct.
Lewis said that after he was promoted to captain, he "bounced around" Brooklyn before attending the prestigious Southern Police Institute, a career development course at the University of Louisville. He was then assigned as second-in-command at the East Flatbush station house. After a stint in the Detective Bureau, Lewis took over the 78th Precinct in Carroll Gardens and Red Hook in August 2010. He got the call to return to Crown Heights in April.
Falling crime rates aside, not much has changed here in the 24 years since the Brooklyn College grad first arrived here in 1988. The swath of Crown Heights from Eastern Parkway to Empire Boulevard between Utica Avenue and Prospect Park still looks like a freshman seminar course on New York's ethnic diversity, encompassing large communities of African-Americans, Caribbean immigrants, and Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim.
"This is definitely a challenging place to be, with a very diverse community with some real crime problems that need to be addressed," Lewis said of the new assignment. "But everybody I've met has had nothing but well wishes for me. They say welcome, and I can really feel that it’s meant, that they really mean what they say."
When asked about the ethnic tensions that plagued this area in the early 90s, Lewis said he and other officers barely feel them.
"I don’t think that’s by accident," Lewis said. "There’s been a lot of hard work over the years, where we’ve built systems in place, and there’s people in the community who’ve made it kind of their life’s work to make sure these communities live in harmony."
While the 71st Precinct may still be a busy place to be a cop, it's not as busy as it once was, and the same new residents who have flooded northern Crown Heights are eyeing the area south of Eastern Parkway.
"This neighborhood’s gentrifying and it’s really changing,” Lewis said. “The area that was traditionally Jewish is growing. We have a lot of hipsters or yuppies or whatever you want to call them moving in from the area around Prospect Park and some of the areas that were really plagued by violence are changing — for the better.”