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Mayor, Council React to Police Chief’s Looming Retirement 

Perez set to leave force in early 2022

Published on Monday, May 10, 2021 | 5:52 pm
 
Pasadena Chief of Police John Perez, at center, shown when he was Interim Chief during a July 18, 2018 City Council Committee meeting. (Photo by Eddie Rivera)

[UPDATED] Police Chief John Perez’s decision to retire in early 2022 was met by elected and city officials with a mix of praise for doing well in a difficult and demanding job, disappointment in the decision to leave the department, and regret that he’s leaving.

Perez told Pasadena Now on Sunday that he plans to retire after special operations end for the 2022 Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game.

“My plan was only to serve as interim chief and make some hard policy decisions which we accomplished with the help of the union in how we reviewed discipline and assessed use-of-force incidents. The change also included how we recruited and retained personnel, filling vacancies now it is at its lowest level in years,” Perez said.

“We need to continue to attract and retain the very best from our local area so we don’t suffer the cost of millions of dollars to replace officers as we did in 2016,” he said.

Mayor Victor Gordo lauded Perez for his many years of leadership in the department. 

“For over 35 years, Chief John Perez has served our city well with dedication and distinction as a street officer, sergeant, lieutenant, commander, deputy chief, and ultimately as chief of our Police Department,” Mayor Victor Gordo wrote in an email. 

“With Chief Perez’s retirement we will lose a great deal of institutional knowledge which will be difficult to replace. I congratulate and thank Chief Perez and his family, his commitment and service to the people of Pasadena, and wish him the very best on his next chapter,” Gordo said.

Perez started his career in law enforcement with the Pasadena Police Department as a cadet in 1985, eventually working on every detail: SWAT, gang enforcement, undercover narcotics, internal affairs, even community relations. He was part of many department changes after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, including development of the Community Policing Plan for the department throughout the 1990s. 

Under Chief Bernard Melekian, Perez designed the department’s counter-terrorism unit, responsible for the safety and security operations of all New Year’s special events.

Some activists have been unhappy with Perez’s decision to clear two officers involved in the violent arrest of Christopher Ballew at an Altadena gas station in November 2017. 

Many of those same activists have been calling on Perez to fire the police officer who fatally shot Anthony McClain during a traffic stop in August. That case, as well as the Ballew incident, are the subjects of lawsuits filed against the city and the department. The McClain case is still being investigated.  

Perez said the criticism did not lead to his decision, but told Pasadena Now on Sunday that he had put necessary policy changes in motion and now could finally retire.

“No matter what I do about critical incidents and how I respond, the Police Chief will always face criticism,” Perez said. “There is nothing you can do about that. That’s not a reason to leave the job, we put into motion the changes that were needed, and it is happening, the future of the department is emerging.” 

Vice Mayor Andy Wilson said Perez leaves behind very big shoes to fill.

“You think about the credibility and knowledge he has of the community and that’s been accumulated over decades,” Wilson said. “I think now more so than ever, we’re really thinking community policing and community engagement is so important. It’s a real loss to have someone like John leave that type of important leadership position.”

Councilmember John Kennedy, who led the City Council’s Public Safety Committee for the majority of Perez’s tenure as chief, said Perez made the decision on his own.

“I think the majority — the supermajority of residents — are probably saying that they have an extraordinary gratitude that we’ve had a leader like John Perez,” Kennedy said. 

“That leadership hasn’t been without some hiccups. But there are no perfect people in the world and there’s no perfect way in which to police a community,” Kennedy concluded. “And I think John has made strong efforts to be transparent and empathetic to all the concerns that exist in the city of Pasadena.”

Councilmember Gene Masuda called Perez an outstanding chief.

“It’s a very difficult job,” Masuda said. “What I always liked about Chief Perez is that he was always trying to reduce crime in our community and he was always focusing on safety. He’s a well-respected individual and I’m disappointed, but I know there are reasons for leaving and according to what I’ve read, he thinks that the timing is OK for him. And he’s going to do it.”

Kennedy said the Ballew incident happened under the previous chief, but Perez, who replaced Chief Philip Sanchez, still had to make difficult decisions and stand by them.

“I think John has been very forthcoming and honest about his views,” Kennedy said. 

One of Perez’s first decisions was to end an arrangement that allowed the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to investigate critical use-of-force incidents. 

That arrangement was made after activists complained about the city’s investigative process, but it led to less transparency. In some cases, public updates on critical incidents by the Sheriff’s Department were released late or did not provide critical details.   

“I have always admired the Chief’s strength and directness, characteristics that are vital in an individual charged with keeping our community safe,” said Councilmember Felicia Williams. “His support in the community has been unspoken, and perhaps that silence means we won’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. Finding a replacement who understands the community and can continue our reforms will be a challenge, and I fear the public’s high expectations may result in disappointment. ”

Today, the department is facing multiple levels of oversight. Although that accountability is supposed to be performed by the Public Safety Committee, soon the city will hire an independent police auditor and will finalize the formation of a Community Oversight Commission.

“He has the power to right some wrongs,” said Esprit Jones. “Chief Perez has made comments about accountability, yet hasn’t enforced accountability. Chief Perez has talked about building community relationships, yet hasn’t built one bridge.”

“I’m only interested in actions to cultivate change… otherwise, why wait until January?”

Juliana Serrano, who will also sit on the oversight body, expressed concerns about replacing Perez.

“Chief Perez has always been willing to engage really tough topics and answer difficult questions with me over the years. I will always be grateful for all that I have learned about policing through him because it made me a better advocate for reform. I support many of the new and innovative strategies he has implemented within the department since becoming Chief,” she said. “I have some fears and concerns about a new leader taking over the PD at this point in time, and I am confident that Pasadena will get through this transition well. I will be wishing the Chief a restful retirement with his family beginning in 2022. In the meantime, we still have a lot of work to do together.”

Previously the city has hired a search firm to conduct a nationwide search to help fill the position. 

Masuda said he was not sure if the current political climate would make it harder to find a new police chief. 

“It’s a different kind of job and because of today’s political climate, and what’s going on in law enforcement, it’s a big decision,” Masuda said. “It’s not the easiest time to make that decision.”

Councilmember Steve Madison said Perez stood out from other candidates for the job because of his community engagement and outreach.

“Pasadena is a world-class city and I think for any police executive it would be a real honor to lead our police department. So I’m confident that we’ll have a number of really outstanding applicants,” Madison said.

“It’s a real challenge to be in that position,” he said. “But I think the people that become police officers almost always do it because they want to help the community and protect and serve. And I’m sure we’ll find somebody really highly qualified.”

Perez was the first in-department promotion to police chief since 1985, when James Robison became the department’s first Black chief after 21 years on the force.

Upon his retirement, former Lt. Bruce Philpott was selected to serve as interim chief. The next three police chiefs came from other departments, 

Jerry Oliver, who took over for Philpott in 1991, came from Phoenix, and Bernard Melekian and Phil Sanchez came from the Santa Monica Police Department.

The decision on the next police chief falls under the authority of the city manager. At this point, it is not known when that process will begin. 

“The relationship between a city manager and a police chief is a special one,” said City Manager Steve Mermell. “I am thankful that John Perez accepted my offer to become Chief and I have very much enjoyed working closely with him.  He has done a terrific job and has well earned a long and enjoyable retirement, but until then, there’s still much to be done and I know he’ll do it.”

On the next chief, “I think we’re going to make a good decision because I think we’re going to involve many stakeholders in the process,” Kennedy said. “That’s just a smart thing to do.”

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