Family, badge, fallen officer helped mold new police director

It seemed like a dicey move at the time: Juan Perez yanked the badge from his shirt and placed it on a podium in support of a group of cadets who had just graduated.

The mayor was threatening hundreds of layoffs during stalled contract negotiations. Perez, being groomed as the next police director, had taken a firm stance against the very person responsible for that promotion — the mayor of Miami-Dade County.

“I’m coming to you as a citizen today,” said Perez, his voice on the verge of cracking, at the ceremony for the cadets. “I’m going to stick my foot in my mouth again. I am un-deputizing myself. Be loud. Be vocal. Do not let them go. Let us not get laid off. Fight for them.”

None of the hundreds of cops facing an uncertain future lost their jobs. The troops were galvanized. And 17 months later, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez gave Perez the post he so coveted, naming the 25-year veteran director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“I told him, to be a director you have to be measured. So it was a learning experience,” Gimenez said. “But I expect directors to fight for their departments.”

Perez, 48, spent the time between his emotional outburst and his appointment at the side of now retired Director J.D. Patterson, absorbing the ins and outs of leading the largest police agency in the southeastern U.S., while grappling with its thick bureaucracy and dealing with the county’s 13 elected commissioners.

About six months ago he was eased in as the face of the franchise, showing up at high-profile news conferences in place of Patterson. It culminated in December with the arrest of 15-year-old Norland High School student Deandre Charles. The student was charged with the 2014 murder of visiting Brooklyn Rabbi Joseph Raksin, gunned down on a Saturday morning as he walked to a synagogue in Northeast Miami-Dade.

Police believe the motive was robbery and others were involved. At the news conference announcing the arrest of Charles, with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle at his side, Perez took the reins.

“Turn yourselves in, or we will come get you,” he warned.

Gimenez liked what he saw.

“He’s extremely bright, intelligent and innovative,” the mayor said. “He has passion going and he’s a cop’s cop.”

The new director’s job is not a simple one: Youth violence is soaring. Senior and experienced staffers are retiring. Body cameras for police officers are on the way, though the department has been a little slow in embracing other forms of technology.

Perez’s task: Juggle those issues while leading the 4,700 sworn and civilian personnel in a county that stretches from the edge of the Florida Keys to the Broward County line.

“I’m humbled and honored,” said Perez.

Perez’s story is not unusual by Miami standards. Still, it’s what shaped him, taught him the importance of diversity and made him aware of hills that many in South Florida had to climb just to fit in.

He is the only son of a young couple who escaped the island of Cuba five decades ago on a small, leaky boat filled with far too many people. It landed in the Dry Tortugas. From there, the U.S. Coast Guard escorted the Cuban migrants to Key West. Their next trip was to Miami’s Freedom Tower.

During his swearing-in ceremony last week, Perez told the tale of his father being shoeless — they were so soaked and rotten when he arrived here, he tossed them — and searching for a place to live. At one point, his mom and dad found a one-bedroom apartment that they liked for $60 a month. Except a sign out front read, “No Cubans.”

“But that’s OK,” Perez told the crowd, emotion sweeping over him and causing him to take a step back. “Because for every one of those signs, there were 10 people willing to take them in because this is America.”

Perez’s parents, Juan and Nancy, and a young daughter eventually found a small apartment in Hialeah. A year later Juan Perez Jr. was born. His dad found jobs repairing boats, something he stuck with all his life. His mom became a seamstress. They attended last week’s swearing-in ceremony.

Perez eventually graduated from Southridge High School. He then attended Miami Dade College and Florida International University while working in the loss prevention department at Burdines. That job led him to law enforcement, and it was where he met the woman who would become his wife of 25 years, Christina. They have two daughters.

Perez eventually secured a degree in organizational leadership from St. Thomas University. In 1990 he was hired at the Miami-Dade Police Department. His first boss was Patterson, the man he replaced.

“Juan has always been someone who listens. And when I say listen, he listens with integrity,” Patterson said.

Perez’s first job with Miami-Dade police was in the north end. He worked in public housing, in the midwest district, robbery and for the department’s Homeland Security section. Along the way he befriended Sgt. Eric Mendez. Their families are close. The two often fish together. Mendez spoke at Perez’s swearing-in ceremony at PortMiami.

Even at an early age “there was something a little different about this officer,” Mendez told the crowd. “He showed leadership skills beyond his years.”

In April 2007 Perez was assigned his first heady leadership role, in charge of the General Investigations Unit in the county’s south end, tasked with protecting about a quarter of the county’s population.

Five months later, during one of the department’s darkest days, Perez’s life was forever changed.

It was the morning of Sept. 13 and roll call had just ended. Perez had ordered 42 officers to different hot spots in the district, which was plagued by gang violence. He was in the office when the radio crackled about a foot chase in a Naranja townhouse complex.

Just after officer Christopher Carlin yelled “Shots fired!” into his radio, officer Jose Somohano was heard saying, “He ran into the house.”

“That’s the last we heard from him,” said Perez.

Perez was soon at the scene. A man named Shawn Labeet fired four times through the home’s front window with an AK-47, striking Somohano in the ankle and tearing his arm apart. Then Labeet stepped outside, stood over the fallen officer and fired six more rounds.

“After the second volley, he was already dead,” Perez said.

By the time Perez got there, Somohano had been carried into a patrol car and had been covered. A sergeant at the scene told Perez not to look, because of the severity of the wounds.

“I opened the door and saw his feet. My natural instinct was to say a prayer. So I dropped down on a knee,” Perez said.

Three other officers were injured in the shootout, including officer Jodi Wright, whose knee was shattered. Labeet, who initially escaped a manhunt, was later shot and killed by police at a Pembroke Pines apartment complex.

In the following days and weeks, Perez became the front person in dealing with Somohano’s family and all the organizations and police survival groups that demanded attention. He joined the police department’s Heroes Program, which locates the graves of 138 officers killed in the line of duty and places a plaque and a flag on their gravesites.

After the South Dade shootout, Perez was named president of Miami-Dade’s branch of the Police Officers Assistance Trust, a group that fills the gaps of officers needs. The trust paid to fly Somohano’s parents to Miami from Puerto Rico and put them up in a hotel.

“It helps with things you don’t want to have to deal with when dealing with the worst catastrophes,” Perez said. “I found a lot of inner peace in being able to help that family.”

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