HACKENSACK, N.J. — After George Floyd’s Memorial Day death at the hands of Minneapolis police, his utterance of “I can’t breathe” became the rally cry of seas of disgruntled protesters who filled the streets of major cities around the country demanding justice for him, and all the black lives who have been victims of police brutality — a number of them American youth.

Apart from two epic protests staged right here in the City of Hackensack this June — all led by ambitious, change-seeking youths, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office has taken steps to address the issue of social injustice in their own backyard. In July, 11 Bergen County police chiefs joined forces with Sheriff Anthony Cureton as a show of hope, service and commitment to the community as they vowed to “fearlessly identify any officer that exhibits signs of racism and injustice.”

To keep young people included and engaged with the happenings of local law enforcement and up on current events, this past summer the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office decided to take the monies spent on raffles during Officer Appreciation Day to purchase five laptop Chromebooks for needy students as prizes for a first-ever essay writing competition to garner the opinions of the so-called “children of the future.” The question? “How Can Law Enforcement Better Serve My Community?”

Sign Up for Hackensack Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

At an awards ceremony, which members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office held outside the Court House in Hackensack Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff Cureton said he would consider implementing some the ideas expressed in the winning essays in their line of work.

The open-ended question elicited eyebrow-raising responses from roughly 200 participating students who were judged by a seven-member panel of command staff, but only five were tapped the winners: Joseph Cecchini of Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck; Rebecca Garcia of Dr. Leroy McCloud Elementary School in Englewood; Jasmine Snyder of Gantner Avenue School in Elmwood Park; Jasmine Duarte Chitay of Grant Elementary School in Ridgefield Park; and Adrianna Garcia of Roosevelt School in Ridgefield Park.

“In serving as Sheriff, in a situation like this, this is even more special because we get to recognize individuals who have promising futures, but as demonstrated that that to us right now, as they took on this essay contest, and expressed themselves on what they can suggest to do to make law enforcement better for the community,” said Cureton as the five winners stood socially distanced donning masks beside him before a small crowd.

“We are so proud we are able to engage our young people in a conversation about law enforcement,” said Bergen County Freeholder Mary Amoroso, before she issued the students commendations from the Board of Commissioners and the County Executive Jim Tedesco. “We love and respect our police officers, and we understand the more contacts between cops and constituents — the calm, non-threatening signs — the more trust that is built for times of crisis. Our local law enforcement officers are here to protect and serve and under the leadership of Anthony Cureton they’re here to listen to feedback from our communities.”

In her essay, Adrianna suggested meet-and-greets among local police departments to further acquaint themselves with each other and find out what makes them tick and establishing a neighborhood watch program to “motivate the community and protect one another.”

“Law Enforcement needs to set good examples within the communities in order for them to gain trust and respect,” she wrote. “Every time the news reports police brutality they lose the respect of the people. If we cannot trust our law enforcement, we feel unsafe in our community. By teaching us how to behave in certain situations, we can learn how to make our communities better.”

Rebecca said she felt additional training and renewing existing certifications among police officers should be used as a barometer to measure their future success in handling dangerous situations.

“This will help us ensure that all working cops are good, and they aren’t doing something they are not supposed to do for no reason, as well as give the department a chance to see those issues and correct them,” she wrote.

She also suggested twice-year psychological evaluation to be conducted among officers to gauge their ability to best handle stress and capability of working their shifts. For officers who don’t pass, she recommended replacing those officers with a replacement to account for an overall stronger force. Lastly, in addressing the issue of defunding the police, a slogan that emerged from the Black Lives Matter protests, in lieu of that, she proposed bettering community involvement in the form of fundraisers via tournaments between local kids and school staff and greater police visits to schools in addition to lower income homes.

“I hate to use the word ‘civil unrest,’ but that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with,” said Cureton. “With that, again, to take the young group of individuals who want to give their input now to make our lives better… We all share the same mindset and that is that’s our future. We have to honor them now, so they can grow up to do the same thing we’re doing and honor the next generation.”