Grewal is history-maker, but also top prosecutor

The Interview Issue

By Anjalee Khemlani
Bergen County | Dec 26, 2017 at 12:07 pm
From our print edition

After two years on the job as Bergen County prosecutor, Gurbir Grewal wasn’t expecting to suddenly detour from his current career path into the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy.

That’s why he was a bit surprised when he got a call asking him to become the state’s attorney general while standing in line for a ride at Walt Disney World with his kids.

If the nomination is approved, as expected, Grewal will become the first South Asian to take such a senior position in New Jersey’s cabinet and the first Sikh-American to be a state attorney general anywhere in the U.S.

Such firsts put him in the history books, alongside former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and Hoboken Mayor-elect Ravinder Bhalla, the latter of whom is coincidentally a childhood friend and fellow attorney.

But Grewal, who served as the chief of the economic crimes unit for Paul Fishman in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, does not want to be viewed as being just a minority pick. He is eager to have impact and serve as a role model.

Grewal recently spoke with ROI-NJ about the role.

ROI-NJ: What is it like to see coverage of your nomination across the country and in other countries?

Gurbir Grewal: I think it was unprecedented when Gov. (Chris) Christie nominated me for this position. We don’t have a lot of representation among law enforcement and prosecutors and district attorneys, even though we have some stellar examples, like Preet Bharara and others. But there aren’t a lot of us. So, when that happened, it was surprising.

I was getting sent clippings from papers in India from relatives. But nothing to the scale I am getting now of how newsworthy this is in India and across the country. The enormity of it is slowly sinking in.

ROI: Do you feel pressured to balance the attention on your identity with the work you do?

GG: It certainly is an added pressure, because my successes are magnified, as are my failures. But I don’t want it to detract from the fact that I’ve been a career prosecutor (and) that I’ve done this at different levels (including federal).

I don’t want it to overshadow the fact that I have the skill set necessary to lead the attorney general’s office and I’m not just the diversity candidate. I would like to think that it was the skill set that I developed over the last 12 years as a prosecutor, combined with the added factor of the diversity. I don’t want to be viewed as just the diversity candidate.

ROI: That being said, it is an interesting time in the country for your nomination. Isn’t it important to note?

GG: I think it’s more important now than ever. Even more than when I was nominated for Bergen County prosecutor.

Now, you have people’s loyalty and patriotism openly being questioned just based on the way they look and where they come from and what they believe. It’s so much more important for not just me to do this job, but others within the minority communities to do these front-line public service jobs. No matter at what level.

It makes a difference when you have someone so visible in these jobs that are so intertwined with what people perceive to be “American.” I think it helps change perceptions of people in a positive way.

ROI: Has your experience growing up as a minority, and as a Sikh specifically, not been positive?

GG: I’d be lying if I told you growing up as a Sikh in New Jersey and the United States has been easy. I think that’s in large part what has motivated me to do these public-facing jobs — to maybe make it easier for the next person who might be (growing up right now) to have these role models with a beard and with a turban associated with something so positive, and that it might make life easier for that new immigrant or for that person who is trying to maintain their identity.

Having experienced that bias and hate firsthand, I think I can relate better to these issues in the climate we are in right now. We have seen such a spike in incidents of hate and bias — not just across the county — over the last year. I’m particularly attuned to that, even in schools with instances of bias and hate. We worked with principals and educators to come up with a plan to address hate. You can’t sit idly by and see swastikas as juvenile indiscretions.

ROI: What are some of the achievements in Bergen you are most proud of?

GG: Coming from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the county two years ago, my background had been in white collar and cybercrime. But the No. 1 problem I faced when I came here, which is unfortunately facing prosecutors across the country, is the opioid and heroin epidemic.

I’m proud of the way, in the last two years, in a county that is so big and so diverse, with 70-plus police departments, that we changed the way we are addressing this. It is a disease, and not a law enforcement issue alone, and we have worked to get people into treatment and out of jail cells. I am proud of the compassion we have brought to the issue and not locking people up just because they are addicts.

ROI: How have you used your own personal experience to help address issues minorities face?

GG: I am proud of how we have built bridges across diverse communities in the county, by holding clergy academies and bringing law enforcement together with community stakeholders and providing greater transparency of our processes.

For example, how we investigate officer-involved shootings. We’ve had countless forums on that, because I didn’t want to have a situation in Bergen County that we have seen play out in the news in other parts of the United States after an officer-involved shooting. I wanted people to have trust in the law enforcement in the county before an event like that.

I’m also proud of how we addressed bias in law enforcement through implicit bias training of law enforcement and at the prosecutor’s office.

ROI: As you prepare to depart, and apply some of your successful programs and trainings across the state, what will you miss most about Bergen County?

GG: The hardest thing will be to leave progress on changing the culture of Bergen County law enforcement behind, but I’m also excited to bring it to the 21 counties in the state.

(The administration) is a different direction, but I will never forget this office. It’s the people and the mentorship opportunities. One of the things that I really loved about this job was mentoring young lawyers and getting them trial-ready, and sitting with them and (practicing) their openings and watching them develop from the (practice) openings we do in the conference room to doing them at trial. And to tell them it’s not about wins and losses and we don’t measure them by whether they get a conviction or an acquittal, we just want them to do their job the right way.

That one-on-one interaction is going to be more difficult when I move to a bigger organization. I’ll miss those relationships. I’m not abandoning anyone, they all have my cell phone number. I want to be accessible to them, because this is a real special place, and, in two years, they’ve sort of accepted me with open arms, very quickly, and we’ve developed great relationships here, not just in the office but across the county.

I don’t think we’ve ever had better relationships between (the) three branches and that’s why we are able to achieve all our successes.

Read our interviews

Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem