For Ibrahim Baycora, Paterson’s newest police chief, his professional life has been a series of coin tosses.
It was a coin-toss decision in 1983 that led him to a three-year stint as a supervisor at King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia. A coin-toss decision that brought him back to New Jersey to work at the DEP. And 32 years ago, it was a coin toss decision that led him to accept an offer to join the city police department.
On Tuesday, in a ceremony at City Hall, Baycora, 60, was sworn in as the city’s first Muslim police chief by Andre Sayegh, the city’s first Arab-American mayor, making history and starting a new chapter for a a department beset by corruption and fighting rampant gun crime for years.
But to Baycora, whose family immigrated to Paterson from Turkey when he was an infant, his background serves him better than his creed in one of the state’s most diverse cities.
“I don’t think my religion makes the difference,” said Baycora on Wednesday morning. “But my background does, being a first generation immigrant. People often tend to relax and they feel like they’ll be treated fairly. Especially if they feel like they’re from a marginalized group.”
Sayegh believes that Baycora may also be the first Turkish-American police chief of any city in the country.
Baycora is the city’s 17th police chief and takes over the department’s reins at a time when eight Paterson police officers have been arrested by the FBI on charges that include shaking down motorists for money. He succeeds Troy Oswald as the city police chief. Oswald retired effective the first day of February.
Baycora will earn a salary of $218,000, said Sayegh.
During a tenuous period for the police department, appointing Baycora was common sense, said Sayegh, and would hopefully lend a sense of security and incorruptibility.
“It was my decision and it was based on his integrity,” said Sayegh. “His intelligence. His stellar reputation. His unassailable integrity.”
When Baycora was an infant, his family immigrated from Eskişehir, Turkey, settling down in Paterson, he said. He went through the city’s public school system and graduated from Eastside High School. After going through one year at Boston University, Baycora transferred to Rutgers University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and chemical engineering, he said.
It was a run-in with Paterson Police that would ultimately steer Baycora away from fledgling careers and into the same police department he’d end up leading years later. After he was involved in a fight, Baycora was irked by the way he was treated by police officers.
“I was the type of guy that never had run-ins with the police,” said Baycora. “I never hung around the streets. I maintained good grades. I went to school.”
Rather than letting the experience turn him away from law enforcement, Baycora used it to drive his pursuit to join the department’s ranks.
“I didn’t think they treated me well and that sparked my interest,” he said. “I said ‘Let me become a police officer.’”
After passing the test, Baycora got a call from then-Mayor Frank X. Graves Jr., who asked him if he’d take the job, he said. After Baycora asked for more time to make his decision, Graves told him he had to choose right then and there. Once again, Baycora made a coin-toss decision and accepted.
More than 30 years later, Baycora hopes to correct the course of the police department by using technology and holding the department’s supervisors accountable, he said. Last month, the city announced 150 police officers would be receiving body cameras. Recently, high-ranking officers attended a training on comparative statistics, which can be used to compare law enforcement statistics based on sectors in a police department, said Sayegh.
More staff has been added to the department’s internal affairs division, said Baycora. And at roll call, Baycora plans to continue reiterating what he expects from his department and what will not be tolerated.
“I know that Mike is a thinker,” said Jerry Speziale, the city’s public safety director. “A guy that has ideas and who values other’s opinions. He has broad experience and is an extremely intelligent individual. We’ll all work together to make a safer Paterson.”
The job for Baycora is one he said he’s trained for by living in the city. At his swearing-in ceremony, Baycora was surprised by the turnout. He expected scores of empty chairs in City Hall. It was packed.
He supposed it was because he had a good reputation with the friends he’d made in the city he was raised in.
“I’m not Joan of Arc or anything,” Baycora joked. “I’d like to think of myself as a decent person.”