PROVIDENCE — Mayor Brett Smiley has chosen Commander Oscar Perez as the city’s new police chief.
Perez, a 29-year veteran Providence officer and a Colombian immigrant, is the first Latino police chief in the department’s history.
Smiley announced his decision Friday morning at City Hall, with Perez at his side.
Perez, 52, is now officially the colonel of the Providence Police Department, it’s 38th chief. Smiley said there will be a ceremonial swearing-in soon.
The mayor spoke about the new chief as a professional whom he could trust, who he believes will lead the department into the future.
“As we went through this process, in addition to getting to know the officers, I spent a lot of time talking to mayors around the country and asking how they made the choice and what they looked for,” Smiley said. “What I heard from other mayors around the country time and time again, was that trust and personal rapport and that one-on-one relationship is invaluable. That weighed heavily on me. ... I spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about it and getting to know the finalists. And I say it with confidence that the right choice was Oscar Perez.
“It is a big decision, and it’s one that was not taken lightly,” Smiley added. “I’m excited about the future. You know, these things are about new chapters and new beginnings, and as much as we all love the former chief, I believe that Oscar Perez will take this department to the next level of 21st century policing. We’re not going to be satisfied with just continuing to do what we have done, but instead to do even better.”
Perez spoke of his humility and honor in being chosen, and said he hoped he would be an example. Perez joined the Police Department in May 1994 and rose through the ranks, serving in all divisions of the department. He was chosen as deputy chief in November after the retirement of Commander Thomas Verdi, and then became acting police chief when Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. left in January.
“I’ve worked there with some of the most courageous men and women that law enforcement has to offer,” Perez said. “My message to them is that I feel strongly about the fact that they need to be properly trained and I care about them. Policemen don’t care what you know until they know you care about them.”
Along with proper training, Perez said, the officers’ wellness and health are also his priorities for the department.
The Providence police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, congratulated Perez and said his appointment gave hope to all who ascend through the ranks, “that anything is possible with hard work.”
“I have known Chief Perez for 28 years,” union president, Officer Michael Imondi, said in a statement. “He is a man of integrity and honor. He is humble and has compassion for the community and the officers who serve under him. Chief Perez is a straightforward person in his approach, while remaining approachable to all. I know he loves the Providence Police Department and the City of Providence, and he has a strong bond with the community and the officers he now leads.”
Perez holds a master’s from Boston University, graduated from the FBI National Academy and senior management programs at Boston University and the Harvard Kennedy School, and has taught community policing at Roger Williams University and Salve Regina University. He also has served on the parole board, the board at the Nonviolence Institute, and has been instrumental in working on statewide law enforcement policies, including body-worn cameras.
Perez is well-known throughout the community, where people call him by his first name, instead of his rank. At Wednesday’s packed community forum for the three finalists for police chief, Perez was applauded by some in the audience as he spoke about the need to recruit quality applicants for the police academy.
Smiley said the forum was not only an opportunity for the community to hear from the finalists, but also a chance for him to see how the three high-ranking officers communicated with the public. “It was clear all three candidates did a nice job, but then Commander Perez, now Chief Perez, clearly connected well, was able to communicate well with community, and gave me the confidence that I needed to see that this man will effectively be able to lead our department and ... be the face and the voice for the Providence Police Department.”
Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute, where Perez is on the board, praised the mayor’s selection. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous appointment for the city, in so many ways. An excellent choice in terms of his experience and commitment to the city,” Huntley said. “Just like the mayor, I thought that all the candidates were excellent, but clearly, Colonel Perez stood out. So I think it’s tremendous for the city. It’s what the city is calling for.”
Rachel Miller, Providence City Council president, congratulated Perez Friday in a written statement.
“With nearly three decades of experience, I am confident that Chief Perez will lead the men and women of the Providence Police Department ethically and with integrity.”
Miller, who represents Ward 13, also thanked Perez’s fellow finalists for chief, Majors David Lapatin and Kevin Lanni. “The city is fortunate to have such a dedicated and talented command staff at the ready,” she said.
“This is an exciting day for the city of Providence, people of color, and especially for the Latino community,” said City Council President Pro Tempore Juan M. Pichardo, who represents Ward 9.
“For the first time in the history of the city, our 38th police chief has come from the neighborhoods and among the ranks, qualified and ready to serve. Best of all, he speaks and understands my constituents’ language on the South Side and the growing Latino population across Providence,” Pichardo said. “I have no doubt that Chief Perez will continue to bring transparency and accountability to the department. We all should stand with the new chief because it is never easy being the first.”
Black Lives Matter RI PAC congratulated Perez and said it hoped to work with him on public safety issues. In particular, the organization said in a written statement Friday that it wanted Perez to enforce the Community Safety Act, have a strong relationship with the Providence External Review Authority, and expand mobile crisis intervention teams to help people with mental and behavioral health issues.
Perez has spoken often about his journey, growing up in Medellín, Colombia, and emigrating with his family to Providence at age 13. They lived on Elma Street, on the South Side of Providence, where Perez met a young Ed Cooley, the future coach of the Providence College men’s basketball team, and learned how to box at a local boxing gym. In an interview with the Globe in December, Perez said he learned lessons in the boxing ring: the importance of training properly, being disciplined, and having the right people in your corner.
Perez said that he wanted to be a police officer since he was a child in Colombia. When he came to Providence and saw how the police made a difference getting the Elma Street Posse off the streets, he was sure of his path. His younger brother, Andres, also followed him onto the force and is now a sergeant.
He was still deputy chief when he told the Globe in December that he felt “blessed” 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.”
This story has been updated with comments from members of the Providence City Council and the Providence Fraternal Order of Police.