Hackensack appoints city’s first African American public defender – Navarro Gray


Provided by Thom Ammirato, Courtesy of The Gray family
George Odell Gray, grandfather of Navarro Gray, when he served on the Hackensack Police Department. He was the first African-American police officer in the city.

HACKENSACK — Without realizing it, Navarro Gray made history when he was named the city’s public defender — becoming the first African-American to hold this position in Hackensack.

Before graduating from Hampton University Cum Laude and Hofstra University School of Law, Gray attended Fairmont Elementary School and Hackensack High School — having graduated from the latter in 1997.
George Odell Gray, grandfather of Navarro Gray, when he served on the Hackensack Police Department. He was the first African-American police officer in the city.
Navarro Gray is Hackensack's new public defender and the first African-American to hold this position in the city.

While he received his bachelor’s degree in marketing and ended up working for Johnson and Johnson, becoming one of the first undergraduates employed under the Marketing Leadership Development Program, he soon felt a calling to make a difference through law.

"I was always into current events," he said. "When I would visit from college, I saw that a lot of my friends were getting into trouble…I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to fight for people who had their rights violated."

In addition to wanting to make a difference for others, Gray also thought that getting a law degree would assist him in his attempts to break into the music industry.

"I was making music back then," he said. "I was involved in music as a musician and as a possible business. I stepped back and decided instead of waiting around and force things to happen, I would go to law school and that way more doors would open for me."

His love for music paired with his law degree, has allowed him to work with record companies, MTV and represent artists.

Gray’s deep Hackensack roots include family members with stellar and at times, history-making, careers as well. Take for example, Gray’s father, Dallas, who is a professor at Bergen Community College and a former member of the board of commissioners of the city’s housing authority or his late grandfather, George Odell, who served on the Hackensack Police Department from 1925 to 1962. Not only was George the city’s first African-American police officer, but one of the first members of the department, according to city officials. He donned badge No. 10. Nevertheless, Gray was unaware of his grandfather’s historical status or his occupation until long after George retired.

"I had no clue he was a retired police officer until he got older," Gray said. "My memories of him are as my grandfather, not as a police officer."

Hackensack Mayor John Labrosse said that though he had no idea that Gray was related to the first African-American police officer in the city, "it shows that he comes from a family that dedicated themselves to service."

Growing up Gray was mentored and spent time with Labrosse who coached the future public defender in Little League baseball. Gray also boxed in the Golden Gloves organization at the Police Athletic League under the guidance of Police Director Michael Mordaga.

"The mayor has seen me grow," Gray said. "He coached me and pushed for me during my youth."

Labrosse remembers his time coaching young Gray.

"He was maybe 9, 10," he said. "He played for the baseball team in Hackensack. It was a recreation league. Navarro was a very good athlete. He was very respectful. He came from a good family."

Mordaga also remembers when he mentored Gray in boxing.

"He is one of the PAL’s success stories," he said. "He was, maybe, 16. He would box with us and back then I was actually hands on with the kids. I remember he was a very focused young man. He got into that boxing program and caught on to the discipline of the sport."

Both Labrosse and Mordaga are proud of the accomplished professional Gray has become.

"When he applied for the [public defender] position, it had been quite some time since I last saw him," Labrosse said. "When he came in for an interview, I remembered that I coached him…It’s great that our public defender is homegrown. It’s a testament to what our city has to offer."

Mordaga shared similar sentiments.

"There is no greater satisfaction than to take a 16-year-old and help him get a focus on life who, then, happened to end up working for the city," Mordaga said.

Though Gray was initially unaware of his new claim in the local history books — only becoming aware that he is the first African-American public defender in the city after locals shared the detail with him — he has welcomed his role.

"As a whole, I want to be a positive role model for those in Hackensack," he said. "I want young people to know they can do whatever they want to do. I want to people of Hackensack to know I will be fair and fight for them. From an African American standpoint, it is an honor to hold that position. I will do everything that I can to make you proud."

Labrosse believes he will be a great role model.

"I think it is great for the African-American community," he said. "Hackensack is a diverse community. He represents what we have to offer…There is no doubt he will do a great job."

Email: vazquez@northjersey.com




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