By Daniel Del Valle and John Welsh

Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton is a law enforcement professional and community leader with 30 years of experience. Sheriff Cureton leads the largest law enforcement agency (600 officers and civilians) in the state’s most populous county—nearly one million residents living in 70 municipalities. Sheriff Cureton also teaches criminal justice at Ramapo College of New Jersey and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and as a guest lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was the longtime president of the Bergen County Branch of the NAACP.

In this feature interview, Editors Daniel Del Valle and John Welsh sat down with Sheriff Cureton to discuss many issues affecting law enforcement. Blue Magazine thanks Sheriff Cureton for his openness, directness, and professionalism. 

Daniel Del Valle: Sheriff, tell us a little bit about you.

Sheriff Anthony Cureton:  I am from Englewood, born and raised. I went to the school system there and served in the Englewood police department for 25 years—elevated to the rank of Sergeant. During that period of time, a lot of the assignments consisted of working in the administration for more than half of my career. I still live in Englewood with my wife and two kids… I was much of a social activist, taught at Ramapo College as well as Fairleigh Dickinson University. And then my life took this direction, and as I sit before you with the blessings of God, I have the opportunity to serve as the sheriff of Bergen County.

You said you’re a social activist. What do you mean by that?

I was the president of the NAACP for seven years, and prior to that active in college. Working for the city of Englewood I was already active not only in politics but other programs, between my fraternity doing more social things—a little more outreach to the community as well as my church involvement. I serve as a deacon at the church. 

What is your life at home like? 

I’m the typical husband that gets bossed around by his wife. I’m the family foundation that I credit my mother and father for, and I credit God for. I know what it takes to keep my family structure together. 

John Welsh: What do you think is the most essential skill about being a good sheriff? 

People skills. Both internally and externally. 

Do you have an open-door policy? Do you follow it? 

For the most part, yes, I do. I’m the type of sheriff that doesn’t have a problem going to my jail; I don’t have a problem walking through the courts. One of the biggest challenges right now is that with 600 plus employees, learning everyone’s name is my priority. 

Right now, blue suicide is a big crisis within law enforcement. When an officer is in a dark place, they have nowhere to turn. Obviously, turn to the PBA or Cop to Cop, but I’ve been noticing sick time has gone up because of the stress in our careers. Do you have a strict discipline when it comes to calling out sick? 

I keep my finger on the pulse. I make sure the command staff keeps their fingers on the pulse. If it’s a pattern, we look at the pattern. Obviously, if you are taking two or three days a week or four or five days in a month, there is a problem that exists. So to have that conversation, “hey is everything okay? Would you like to sit down and talk?” We’ve seen that helps with many individuals. Of course, we share a responsibility, and by having that discussion to find what the problem is, we can help officers deal with stress. We have built a relationship with clergy staff. Right now, we have a little diversity within clergy between the Jewish community, the Christian community, and the Muslim community, where we inform the officers if they are willing to talk to these individuals, we encourage it. So we offer that opportunity here. 

If you had an officer right now dealing with this crisis, how would you handle that? 

First, having a support base here is important. We want to deal with their problem. I want officers to do their job and make sure they maintain their job, and I will get whatever resources I can to help them.

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What are your most significant barriers currently facing you as a leader in your department?

I guess everything changes. We are only in the 8th month-our predecessor was in for eight years. So we have a culture we want to redefine. So it’s a challenge…Of course, being in law enforcement in my 30 years, trust is always a necessary factor. I think we are getting to a point where we are establishing a healthy level of trust, and because of this, barriers are coming down.

With that being said the fact that it was a special election, have you seen any personal or proffesional barriers being a minority. Has that affected any angle behind the scenes? Have you felt any heat or discomfort?

We are in an occupation where, especially in Bergen County, this is a unique situation. This is the first time a person of color, specifically an African American, was elected and serving in this capacity. There are some challenges where perceptions are had before you sit at the table as we are now at this discussion and learning about the individual. It’s all about learning. We have our social issues outside these doors… On a national level, we’re dealing with things in terms of racial issues. Can it trickle down to this level? Of course, it can. We are dealing with various personalities. 

Some people believe that the reason you were chosen for Sheriff is because of the color of your skin. If someone says that what would your rebuttal be? 

Well, look at the things we are facing in America now. There is always a challenge as far as relationships among each community. If you want to talk about Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, it is a racially motivated issue there. We got to have diversity, and we all have to learn how to deal with each other.

Do you believe it’s an advantage to have a sheriff that represents or is a minority at this time? 

I believe it’s a representation of a county as a whole that the community can accept the individual for who they are. We all have cultural differences. There is no requirement in law enforcement that specifically says that you have to be Caucasian. The profession is open to any and everyone. So in this particular situation, my skin color has nothing to do with it. 

Are you happy where minorities are heading? Are you content with the progress that minorities are having in this country? 

I’m content… As long as the door is open and opportunity is extended to everybody. Look at here in Bergenfield, the first Muslim chief, Chief Mustafa, was sworn in. This shows where we are going in our county. It shows that diversity is the key to make an environment here that is represented in other counties.

Do you think it is a slippery slope when we are praising someone’s faith in a position rather than their merits?

I don’t believe so. We are about community policing—we are about opening ourselves and embracing all. 

You were one of the leaders of the NAACP, and that’s socially accepted today. If White America had this type of organized leadership activism based on race, would they be considered like the KKK? Do you agree that there is some type of bias or double standard?

I guess you have to look at the foundation and what it’s built on. The NAACP is about equality. If you go back to the founding of the NAACP—and a lot of people don’t know—they started with seven founders—five were Jewish, and two were black. These founders were representative of obviously not the majority of what the organization is perceived to be African American, but the issues of the African Americans had to be dealt with, so they took that position. 

The Attorney General has a directive that many say conflicts with federal law, what are your thoughts on that?

I live with what the attorney general set forward, he’s the lead law enforcement officer. He put out a directive, and we have to follow it. So as far as any conflict with the federal policy, I’m sticking to what I been charged to do per his directive. 

President Trump, a good or bad president?

Certain things he’s doing we can say it’s okay. Some things he’s not doing the nation has spoken about as far as what they agree or disagree with. I know where I stand, some things I don’t agree with. I am not thrilled about his immigration policy; however, I have to follow the law, and I guess that’s all I can do. He is pro-law enforcement, but we have to do that within a respectful parameter, respecting everyone. 

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Do you feel it’s essential to have a strong relationship with the Union? And how much of an asset is it to have them on your side, especially for your upcoming election?

What are your most significant barriers currently facing you as a leader in your department? 

I guess everything changes. We are only in the 8th month—our predecessor was in for eight years. So we have a culture we want to redefine. So it’s a challenge. …Of course, being in law enforcement in my 30 years, trust is always a necessary factor. I think we are getting to a point where we are establishing a healthy level of trust, and because of this, barriers are coming down. 

With that being said the fact that it was a special election, an asset is it to have them on your side, especially for your upcoming election?

Again, you have to have that relationship and be part of that relationship with the  union. We all have to work collectively to give the community what they need; to me, that’s the ultimate goal.

We have a significant opioid problem in Bergen County. Tell us about that?

It’s a unique problem that affects everyone. I had a meeting yesterday with someone from the Jewish community and not long ago from the Muslim community. We can see on the surface what it’s doing. But the devastation the families suffer, I don’t think it’s really showing until after the person has expired, unfortunately. The Jewish community they’ve explained to me that their children out there are doing drugs, but the children are not talking to them. Then there are some folks in their families that are in denial. The Muslim community is just the same, but I guess when we look at the grand scheme of it, we all face that. We all want to hide behind the elephant in the room. So is it a serious problem? It’s beyond serious as with anything else opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the end result. 

Commissioner O’Neill fired Officer Pantaleo, agree or disagree?

I need to know all the pieces of the puzzle. I gather he has some rational. I’m sure the next question will be did he make this decision under community pressure. I think some part he probably did, but did he make the right decision for the organization is the question at this point.

When it’s all said and done, and you no longer have this position, and you’re just an average person whose phone doesn’t ring constantly, what do you want to be remembered for? 

What I did for the community, or that one person I may have touched or that one law enforcement officer who said they can do this job and enjoyed doing this job. …When I retired I walked around, and I said you know what I had enough, I reached a level of my life where I was content moving on, so for me the job’s been great so if I had to walk away tomorrow in my conscious, in my heart, I know I did the best I could do and I did my best not to hurt anyone on the way there.