Photo courtesy Pasadena Now

Pasadena Police Chief Says This May Be His Last Year of Policing

By Justin Chapman, 4/1/2021

Pasadena Police Chief John Perez said that he’s considering stepping down within the year.

“This may be my last year of policing; I don’t know,” he said during a virtual District 6 town hall meeting on public safety hosted by Pasadena City Council member Steve Madison on March 31.

A couple of days before Perez announced his decision earlier this week not to fire the two officers involved in the 2017 beating of Christopher Ballew — which occurred before Perez was named chief of police — Perez told Pasadena Now that he expected the decision to result in calls for his removal from office from community activists and potentially even members of the Pasadena City Council. Pasadena Police Officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza beat 21-year-old Ballew, who suffered from a broken leg and was not charged with a crime, during a traffic stop in Altadena.

“This is by far the most difficult decision I have made since I became police chief,” Perez said, adding that the decision was based on the law at the time but that he nevertheless expected an outcry based on the perception of a lack of accountability.

A statement about Perez’s Ballew decision was posted on the Pasadena NAACP and POP Pasadena Instagram account reading, “After three plus years this is the conclusion. Just breathe, just pause. The journey from injustice to justice is just that, a journey. Let’s all stay engaged for accountability and transparency is what we MUST demand as in Chris Ballew it was the public that brought it to light not the Police! WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER.”

Madison said during the town hall that he hopes Perez’s decision to step down won’t be made soon.

“We all reach a point where we want to go fishing or retire and you’re certainly deserving of that, but I personally hope that won’t be in the near future because I think you do a great job,” Madison said to Perez. “Being someone who grew up in Pasadena, in the police department, you really understand our department inside and out. I’d hate to lose you. Of course, none of us are bigger than the institution that we work for, and there will ultimately be replacements for all of us.”

Perez, 55, began his policing career at the age of 18 when he joined the Pasadena Police Department as a cadet in 1985. He then worked his way up through various assignments including patrol, community relations, internal affairs, special enforcement, S.W.A.T., special investigations and counterterrorism. He served as police commander and deputy chief of police from 2006 to 2016. Then in 2018, he was selected as chief of police after his predecessor, former Chief Phil Sanchez, resigned from the department following a tumultuous tenure.

Under Sanchez’s watch, officers Lujan and Esparza beat Ballew, former Pasadena Police Lt. Vasken Gourdikian illegally sold over 100 guns, and 35-year-old Reginald Thomas, Jr., was killed in 2016 while in police custody.

Perez, on the other hand, has received some praise for attempting to reform the department through implicit bias training, de-escalation techniques and community policing initiatives. He “led the development of several internal initiatives that decreased the use of force by 35 percent through immersive training and self-improvement from use of body-worn cameras, as well other initiatives to increase community aware of policing challenges through programs such as ‘Policing 101’ developed to educate community members, youth, and the media on policing topics,” according to the National Police Foundation.

Perez has earned three degrees by attending school at night, including a bachelor’s in criminal justice, a master’s in behavior science and a doctorate in public administration. He also serves on the board of the California Police Chiefs Association.

Though his tenure has not been without its controversy, as well. In August, Pasadena Police Officer Edwin Dumaguindin shot and killed 32-year-old Anthony McClain in the back as he ran away from a traffic stop. Perez said officers recovered a gun from the scene that they claim McClain grabbed out of his waistband as he ran and that he turned towards the officers as he was shot, though the body-cam video Perez released does not show that, and Dumaguindin’s body-cam was not on during the incident. Litigation in that case is ongoing.

“Our hearts go out to everyone who’s been impacted, not only by COVID but the violence in our community as well as what we’re going through as a community [including] officer-involved shootings and what’s going on across the country,” Perez said during Madison’s town hall. “We are morally, ethically and legally binded by the outcome of these. I’ll hold myself responsible at the end of what’s happening. In the meantime, we continue to move forward with the legal processes.

“We are worried nationally about what’s happening and the concerns for another round of protests across the country,” he added. “We’re impacted as well in Pasadena as the attorney for George Floyd was hired by the McClain family as well. We are tracking it, working the best that we can through it. Always difficult. McClain will be difficult for us to move forward. We know we have a gun, we know we have DNA, but it’s going to be difficult for our community to move forward with these critical events that just send us back sometimes a decade in our relationships.”

Last month, McClain’s family hired Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who won a $27 million settlement for the family of George Floyd. Floyd was killed last May by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, setting off a national reckoning on systemic racism and igniting large-scale Black Lives Matter protests. Chauvin’s trial for murder is currently underway.

Perez explained during Madison’s town hall that starting in 2019 he implemented a reorganization of the Pasadena Police Department following a one-year-long community listening campaign as well as internal retreats with frontline personnel.

“We listened to the type of police department they wanted and we designed what we thought was a future for policing that would take several years to engage,” he said. “After one year, it’s worked out very well in terms of resources.”

He pointed out that overall crime in Pasadena has dropped by 15 percent this year to a historic low. That, however, is coupled with an increase in violent crimes, gang activity, illegal guns and shootings.

“In that data you will find an 85 percent increase in the amount of gun violence with a 59 percent increase in the amount of shooting victims, two of the highest numbers I have seen in my almost 36 years with the city,” he said.

Part of Perez’s reorganization included eliminating the department’s gang unit, the source of much criticism from the community. Madison questioned the wisdom of not having a gang unit at a time when gang activity is on the rise. Perez said the science of police work around that topic has evolved.

“The model of working gangs has a shelf life,” Perez said. “Everything we do has a shelf life. The science of police work, of sociology, of all these issues combined tells you there’s a better way to do what we’re doing. In 2019, when I decided to listen to what was happening and reorganize, it also came with a lot of study and understanding. When we eliminated the gang unit and the old way of doing police work, we were led by science and intelligence-led policing. We need to be where we know crime is occurring. We’re now building a model around it. We’re looking right now at this new way of eliminating violence by focusing on career criminals that we know will commit crime again, gang members we know are active and working regionally with other police departments to understand how the region is affecting our gangs.”

He pointed to his extensive experience around gang enforcement, explaining that he spent seven years working gang enforcement in some capacity and that he grew up in a gang area in Los Angeles.

“A close cousin of mine who wasn’t a gang member was stabbed and killed by gang members as we walked to the liquor store when we were 14 years old,” he said. “So I understand both sides of it very well.”

He added that the new model includes prevention, intervention and enforcement.

“Eliminating the gang unit provided us an opportunity to create a new model of policing by stopping the old ways of just conducting gang enforcement by the number of people we stopped,” he said. That’s been helpful for us in reducing the national and local concerns about policing in our minority communities. The big net we would throw out and see how many people we would grab and start asking who’s in gangs—that’s what we’re trying to get away from.”

He said that they’re in the first year of this system and that it’s already starting to pay dividends.

“With any great change of an organization, it takes a little bit of time,” he said. “This one is working out faster than I thought it would. This might be my last year of policing; I don’t know. With this coming up and coming about, all these changes have to extend beyond the chief and extend into the decade to make sure we are doing things that could last well beyond any of us. A lot of police departments are paying attention to what we’re doing. The science of what I talked about has reduced the use of force over the last two years by over 20 percent. We’ve reduced certain types of uses of force by over 70 percent. I know this is working. I might not be around to see how it’s going to look in another year or the years after that, but we do know that this is working. A 15 percent decline in crime this year tells me that we’re getting there.”

Perez said he will be presenting this new model of policing to the city’s Public Safety Committee next month, which will include a recommendation to expand the HOPE and PORT teams and partnerships with nonprofits, as well as a digital platform using a use of force process that improves officers’ decision making and decreases the amount of time it takes to detain someone who is violent.

Perez said the reorganization process included working with the resources that were available to him, rather than adding more just for the sake of it.

“There was a time of looking at the possibility of adding more police officers and so forth, but at the time it was more important for me to flatten the organization, stretch out our resources and identify what we needed to do with the resources we had,” he said. “Adding more officers is great, but we’ve had years where we had 15 or 20 more officers and crime was 20 percent higher than what we have now, so I’m not sure more officers is always the answer,” Perez said. “First, we have to clean the slate, rebuild it and then add the resources in a very smart way. We are spinning on all cycles and in all directions. You’d be proud of the officers and the work they’re doing. Their morale has been very positive.”