Pasadena police Deputy Chief John Perez, who was recently chosen by City Manager Steve Mermell to serve as interim chief in the wake of former Chief Phillip Sanchez’s sudden departure and retirement from law enforcement last month, has worked most of his adult life as a Pasadena police officer.
But today, after 33 years as a cop, Perez loves his job more than ever, thanks in part to surviving a heart attack nearly two years ago while at work.
It was on July 29, 2016, a day Perez will always remember, that Sanchez and detectives saved his life after Perez suffered cardiac arrest while in the gym at the police station. Perez was dead for more than a minute before he was brought back to life by the former chief and others using CPR and an automated external defibrillator, a lightweight, portable device that delivers an electric shock through the chest to the heart.
“It gave me a new perspective on life and the value of making a difference,” Perez told the Pasadena Weekly. “It provided me with the understanding from God to focus on what I can influence to make change and to bless those things I have no influence over and send it on its way.”
Graduating from West Covina High School in 1984, then serving as a police cadet right out of high school for two years, and finally becoming a cop in 1988, Perez has worked just about every detail in the department. Homicide, SWAT, gang and narcotics enforcement, internal affairs, even community relations, he’s done it all. While moving up the ladder of command, the 52-year-old married father of two also pursued a higher education, earning a master’s degree in behavioral science and later a doctorate in public administration.
Perez inherits a department that in recent years has come under a community microscope, with a number of violent incidents prompting the formation of citizen activist groups calling not only for transparency but reform of the department.
Since 2012, with the shooting death of unarmed teenager Kendrec McDade, followed four years later with the officer-involved death of Reginald Thomas Jr., the department has weathered intense criticism. And just last year, more fuel was thrown on that fire with the alleged illegal gun sales made by former Lt. Vasken Gourdikian, who now faces stiff prison time if convicted in federal court, and the brutal videotaped beating of 21-year-old Christopher Ballew by two Pasadena officers at an Altadena gas station.
Perez said he supports independent auditing of the department on a case-by-case basis, and one of those is the case of Ballew. To that end, Perez is asking the Washington DC-based Police Foundation — with a board of directors chaired by former Pasadena Police Chief and City Manager Bernard Melekian — to conduct an investigation into the Ballew matter.
Perez said Melekian would not participate in the investigation. Melekian has told the Pasadena Star-News that he will not be part of the agency’s activities. Melekian told PW much the same thing. “I have nothing to do with the investigation process, and I wasn’t even involved in the selection process,” the former chief said. (Please see page 5 for a related column.)
The Pasadena Weekly sat down with Perez a few hours after he officially became interim chief.
Pasadena Weekly: How is it going so far?
Interim Chief Perez: It’s going well. It’s been busy. I am equally communicating inside the Police Department and the community. I think the message inside the department is to make sure we are on the right path on what we are trying to achieve before I actually go out into the community and start talking about our goals and objectives. It’s a balance of trying to build a bridge between two communities.
There have been a number of serious incidents in a short amount of time, and now some people believe the Pasadena Police Department is corrupt. How do you respond to that?
Individually we are all responsible for our own actions. If something happens internally with an individual or individuals there is an investigation. I think we have done that at this point. When it comes to incident-driven events, the department handles roughly 10,000 calls for service per month. We get roughly 1,200 calls into dispatch per day. At that level of work, we have to make sure we are doing the best we can with incidents. We are doing our best. There are examples after examples of individuals stopped in the street with firearms and we arrest them without any fanfare and no use of force. A couple of weeks ago we seized nine weapons in one weekend. There were no officer-involved shootings or use of force. There are moments where errors occur. When they do, we have to push forward and make sure we correct those errors. Just because something does not look good, it does not mean it’s corrupt.
What’s been the biggest positive and the biggest negative so far?
I’ve received so much support at the Police Department and from the community. I thought it would be a little bit bumpy in the beginning. I am surprised at how much education is going to be required publicly to help people understand policing. And I think I also have some work to do on the inside to help us better understand the public perception of the Police Department and how our relationship benefits the quality of life.
What are your thoughts on the Thomas incident?
I knew the officers were in a very terrible fight. It was a terrible place to try and deal with a terrible situation. When people cross the threshold, it’s difficult because sometimes less lethal doesn’t work. Sometimes a control hold doesn’t work. It just becomes a terrible place for everybody to be and then the outcome can become very difficult as well. I think the report shows the officers tried everything they could before they got to what happened at the end of the event. They did everything they could, using all the best tactics and training. Unfortunately the end result is not what anybody wanted. They did what they could, but there are situations where you can’t just follow a textbook.
In the department, the union has pushed back on independent auditors. Where do you stand?
To begin with, in talking with our police officers association, they have been very supportive. They understand the role of an auditor. They understand the need to have public reports. I think it’s been a fallacy by people to think they are against all that. They are not. They want it to be done right. They don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights. They don’t want to put a police officer in a position where they have to protect their rights without due process. It’s not that they worry about the information being out, but sometimes it’s not supposed to by law. If we release information we are not supposed to, what happens on the next case or down the line? We can’t violate those agreements. There has to be a due process, there has to be a well thought out procedure, and the union expects us to make sure we are holding to that. They have been very open to having the discussion. As a former union member, you do expect them to have your back. You expect due process. There is also the part with the public. The public wants to know what happened in these situations and they want as much information as possible and they should know.
But there has to be a balance. We have to be transparent and we have to protect the rights of our officers.
So do you support an auditor?
At this point I support the independent reports I have agreed to do on the Ballew incident. On a long term, there would have to be much more discussion to make sure we lay out the boundaries and the strategy behind it as well. We do things very well in Pasadena and I know that because many police agencies have called me and they want to know how Pasadena is handling these problems.
Give me an update on the Ballew investigation
We are continuing on with our internal affairs investigation. There will be a review by the command staff and the independent auditors will also review the case. The officers are still employed by the Pasadena Police Department and they remain on administrative duty.
Have you made any decisions about applying for the job?
At this point I have not even thought about it. It’s a privilege to be offered the interim job. The support has been extraordinary from within the department and the community, but there is work to be done. I want to build some stability with the community and with the Police Department, not focus on promotions, but just on the path we are going to take.