Last Friday night, 40 North Bergen Police Officers were prepared for the worst case scenario, the possibility of a fight at the North Bergen High School football game against Union City on the eve of Mischief Night.
The large police presence was due to a few prior incidents, explained Capt. Robert Dowd during the roll call before their shifts. Last year at a Union City football game, six officers were injured when a fight, allegedly connected with gang violence, broke out. He said 10 years ago, the last time one of their football games fell on Mischief Night, a “full-scale riot” broke out on Bergenline Avenue.
“You can’t take it to heart, you have to make a joke about it.” – Bruce Sonvico
Memorable moments on the job
Lt. Bernadette Gonyou was North Bergen’s first female cop 22 years ago.
“Twenty-two years ago was a lot different than now,” she said. “I guess I paved the road maybe.”
Gonyou is now custodian of records for the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, keeping track of arrest bookings and Megan’s Law offenders during a day shift. She previously worked in many different departments.
During her first year on the job, she was involved with a major prostitution sting that helped nab 97 men, she said.
One of her most memorable nights was early in her career, when she was called to an accident on 83rd Street and West Side Avenue.
“It turned out a boyfriend…had just stabbed her [and] she was taking her last breath,” Gonyou said. “In my mind, I thought it was going to be a motor vehicle accident.”
She said the boyfriend took off running toward a passing train. Afterward, they learned that the boyfriend had allegedly “set up” the situation to murder his girlfriend. Gonyou said that he eventually received 25 years in prison for his crime.
Investigator Anthony Ortiz, an officer who works in the department’s juvenile division, said that reuniting a child with their parents is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
He said that recently a 4-year-old girl went missing when her mother was picking up her sibling form school. The police took the same route home that the girl and her mother normally did and they found her sitting at home waiting for her mother. Ortiz said that their department also works on finding missing teens that run away from home.
“I was just put into the gang unit under the old chief when basically there was an attempted murder that we solved,” said Det. Mark Francin, who works with Ortiz in the juvenile division. “All of the Latin Kings [allegedly] tried to kill one of their own and that [stands] out pretty well.”
Francin said that he once helped a teen, who is now serving in the armed forces, get on the “straight and narrow.”
Lt. Bruce Sonvico said that he was once waiting on the grassy median between Route 495 and Route 3 when an out of control vehicle drove into the tow truck and them, pinning a fellow officer down. They were able to get him out from under the car, but the experience stays stuck in his mind.
A good sense of humor
Sonvico, who was a first aid squad member and a dispatcher before becoming a police officer, has been on the job for more than 25 years. He said that humor plays a big part getting through some of the “gore” that comes with police work.
“You can’t take it to heart, you have to make a joke about it,” said Sonvico.
Gonyou agreed, stating that maybe sometimes officers “break down in their police cars,” but if it wasn’t for humor, handling the stress of the job would become too much.
Ortiz said that cops even had jokes that they had to deal with, including their supposed love of doughnuts.
“I don’t eat doughnuts,” Ortiz said. “I even feel weird going into Dunkin’ Donuts because I know everybody is looking at me [thinking] ‘look at this typical cop eating doughnuts and drinking coffee.’”
Working for their community
Ortiz said that sometimes it was difficult patrolling in his hometown because people see you differently, but that at the end of the day you have to do your job.
“We also try to tell ourselves ‘we don’t know what these kids go through,’” said Ortiz, referring to his work in the juvenile division. “We feel that our job is to not just arrest someone, but to guide them toward the right path.”
Francin, a North Bergen native who was first a dispatcher, said that he always wanted to be an officer. He said that he learned Spanish and is now attempting to learn Arabic so that he can be more immersed in the many cultures that exist in North Bergen.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.