PROVIDENCE — Boxing gloves emblazoned with the Providence Police shield sit on a table behind the new deputy chief.
For all of the awards and achievements over 28 years at the Providence Police Department — a master’s from Boston University, graduating from the FBI National Academy and senior management programs at Boston University and the Harvard Kennedy School, teaching community policing at Roger Williams University and Salve Regina University, serving on the parole board, the board at the Nonviolence Institute, and working on statewide policies — the gloves are a symbol of his grit.
Soon after emigrating from Medellín, Colombia, at age 13, Oscar Perez started going to a boxing gym near his family’s home in South Providence. He couldn’t speak English, but boxing taught him other lessons, like what it takes to remain standing in a fight.
He’s personable and quick to laugh, but even now, at age 52, he instinctively balls up his fists as he talks.
“I’ve always brought it back to boxing,” Perez explained recently in his third-floor office at the Providence Public Safety Complex. “There’s a discipline that comes with it. You are in the ring by yourself. You have to make sure you put the right people in your corner to help you win the fight. Many times in life, you’re gonna get sucker-punched, and you have to expect that, because you have no control over it. You may even lose the fight, because the referees in the middle may like the other fighter better, but you have no control over that. But you have to train properly, be disciplined, put the right people in your corner, and then you have nobody else to blame.”
Those lessons would serve him when he joined the department in May 1994 as one of a few Latino officers at the time. As he’s risen through the ranks, Perez has gained a reputation in law enforcement and in the city for compassion and discipline.
Perez was promoted from major to deputy chief last month, after the retirement of Commander Thomas Verdi. This week’s announcement that Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré and Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. are leaving in the new year puts a new focus on Perez as second-in-command.
Clements will be part of the transition, but there’s no information yet about how incoming Mayor Brett Smiley will choose the next chief.
Clements has called his new deputy chief a leader who has performed with the utmost professionalism. He also teased Perez that he was going to have a hard time supervising his little brother, Sergeant Andres Perez.
In an interview before the announcement, Perez spoke about being proud to have come so far. “I’m blessed to be here. I’m blessed to be in the country that offers opportunities,” said Perez, who is a naturalized citizen. “I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but I do believe that I’m living the American dream behind the badge.”
His ascension has thrilled those who’ve known and worked with him for years, who refer to him as Oscar, no matter what rank he holds.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Laura Pisaturo, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Parole Board, where Perez has served two terms. “He’s a gentleman, he’s professional. ... He’s compassionate, honest, and committed to consensus building.”
She noticed how Perez spoke with inmates up for parole, the questions he asked that subtly challenged their thinking, and how he listened. “His knowledge of the streets of Providence and gang activity allowed him to have some frank conversations with candidates that come before the board,” she said, “and challenge their thought process and reasons to be in the gang.”
Perez has known about gangs since he was a teenager growing up at 25-27 Elma St. in South Providence. There were decent, hardworking people in the neighborhood — Perez became friends with Ed Cooley, the Providence College men’s basketball coach, when they were growing up on Elma Street — but the area was troubled by the dangerous Elma Street Posse.
Perez said he’d wanted to be in law enforcement since he was a child in Colombia. When the Providence police cracked down on the gang on Elma Street, he was sure of it.
“When I came to the United States, I admired the work they did. Especially when we lived in South Providence and we saw how they came in, helped clean up the street, locked up people, and brought peace and calm for a while. It was just a respectable, honorable profession,” Perez said.
“And I felt that I could really do it. I enjoy helping people. It’s rewarding for me to talk to people and find solutions. I thought that it was a great way for me to give back to the community that I grew up in and to the country that gave me an opportunity.”
The promotion makes Perez the highest-ranked person of color in the Police Department’s history.
City Council Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris, who represents Ward 11 in Upper South Providence and the West End, said Perez played an important role when he joined the Police Department as a minority.
“And over the years, he kept growing,” Harris said. “He’s very much into the community, and my work with him has always been positive. When we’re brainstorming on an issue, sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who can be a resource.”
Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute, who has known Perez since he was a sergeant, said that Perez’s promotion was timely. He hoped that Perez would be able to shed some light on the inner workings of the department, including promotions and recruiting for the academy, and ensuring the work to bring people into the department who look like the community.
Like Perez himself.
“He always strikes me as someone who is accessible, who really works for the community, understands community, and understands his craft,” Huntley said. “He’s educated himself and believes in the work. And he’s a stand-up person. ... He grew up here, so he’s very knowledgeable in what he represents for this community, and he keeps that in front of him. He has high integrity and great follow-through. He’s a gentle person and a good human being.”
Robert “Beanie” Johnson Sr., who grew up with Perez in South Providence and whose father was their boxing coach, said Perez’s promotion “couldn’t happen to a better person.”
Johnson said Perez represents the community, and in turn, “the community is on his shoulders.”
He sees how things could have gone differently for Perez, and Perez’s younger brother, Andres. Perez could have been a follower. He could have been on the other side of the law.
“There are so many challenges being brought up in that community, and that tells you a lot about his integrity and him as a person,” Johnson said.
Like Perez, Johnson goes back to the lessons they learned as children in the boxing ring.
“I believe that boxing taught us to be leaders. It’s tough to just get in that ring. When you look at life, it’s the same thing,” Johnson said. “Being deputy chief, he knows he’s going to have to walk down some dark alleys and make decisions that not everyone will agree with, but they are the decisions that have to be made.
“I know that he’s true to who he is and he’s not going to bend because of a reputation or political views, he’s going to do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Johnson added. “He’s done that as a patrolman all the way up to deputy chief, and the community respects him.”