On what was one of the most significant days in his 33-year career with the Bridgeport Police Department, his swearing in as the new chief, Armando J. “AJ” Perez dropped in at the Liceo Cubano de Bridgeport on Fairfield Avenue “for a few moments.”
It would hardly surprise Perez’s friends and admirers that he would make time amid a busy schedule of ceremonies and celebrations on Thursday, March 3 to touch base with his Hispanic roots.
The Cuban organization has been part of the new chief’s life since 1968 when as a 12-year-old boy, he, his two younger brothers and parents Maximo and Rosa Perez immigrated from a small town west of Havana.
Highly regarded in the city’s Latino community, Perez, now 60 years old, regularly attends events there and the Liceo’s president, Raul Laffitte, also a Cuban immigrant, is one of his oldest friends and biggest fans.
“We all grew up together,” said Laffitte who is a few years older than Perez and came to Bridgeport in the 1950s. “He is a gentleman and a wonderful guy,” said Laffitte, who is transportation director for the city schools.
Another longtime friend, Mayor Joseph Ganim, appointed Perez, who he described as a “dear friend” and “dedicated and respected public servant,” to lead the department after the accepting the resignation of Chief Joseph Gaudett.
Perez’s 20-year friendship with the mayor, who in November gained political redemption after serving prison time on a corruption conviction, has spanned “good times and bad times,” said the new chief, who added that he hoped the new “good times will last forever.”
Ganim has someone he trusts and respects in a job that he sees as critical for Bridgeport to move forward and many in the city’s Latino community, which makes up over 32% of the residents, Cuban and otherwise, are elated with the appointment, which had been expected for several months.
“We are all super happy here. This is a long time coming,” said Alma Maya, the Puerto Rico-born former town clerk.
“The mayor could not have picked a better man, and not just because he is a Latino,” said Laffitte. “AJ is well known in the Cuban community as well as in the Puerto Rican, Dominican, African-American and other communities in Bridgeport” Laffitte said.
“It is the best thing to happen to us,” said Maria Ines Valle, president of the Puerto Rican Parade of Fairfield County. “We love AJ. His appointment honors me and my Puerto Rican people,” said the former city council member.
The new chief is “a great listener,” Valle said, and “when there are issues in the community, he is there addressing them.”
Perez got to know Ganim during his ill-fated first stint as mayor in the 1990s. Perez, then a member of the internal affairs unit, was assigned to the mayor in 1995 as part of a protective services detail and served as his driver in 1998. Five years later, Perez testified at Ganim’s trial, which resulted in a conviction and prison term, that he never saw the mayor do anything illegal.
What Perez has seen Ganim do is demonstrate he “really cares about the people of Bridgeport.” The new chief recalled a bitter winter storm where the mayor gave his new coat, a gift from his wife, to a “freezing kid.”
Perez said he has a mandate from the mayor that public safety is of paramount importance to the new administration. He and Ganim are in accord that unless the city is a place where children can go out and play safely, then there is no reason for people and businesses to come to Bridgeport, Perez said.
In December, then Captain Perez was appointed to head a task force targeting violent crime. This became his focus while Ganim maneuvered to have Gaudett, put under contract during the final days of the previous administration, moved into another position.
The way you attack the violent crime problem, said Perez, a chess enthusiast, “is to “get a bunch of good guys and empower them; you develop partnerships with DEA, the FBI, the state police and reach out to departments in nearby towns such as Stratford, Norwalk, Trumbull and Fairfield.”
The drug trade, a factor in violence, does not just concern Bridgeport, the chief said. “Kids are coming in here from other towns and getting hooked on heroin,” he added.
The value of community policing is something that Perez came to know well early in his career. After he joined the force in 1983, he was assigned to the patrol division for the west side, which included the P.T. Barnum Housing Complex. He later was reassigned to the east.
At that time, real gangs were running these housing areas, Perez said, and the the remedy he said was to work closely with “the good people who live in the housing projects, many of whom had no where else to go.”
Generally, the police are well received in the Hispanic community, Perez said. More than 110 members of the 300-person force are Hispanic, he said. Regarding the role of minority members in the force, he added “we are all blue” and are here to serve and protect.
Part of the challenge of putting more officers into the community involves getting the department up to full strength, it has been down nearly 100 people, a gap that was reduced recently with the addition of 29 officers
Perez said morale had been low but is “coming up.” The police union had been one of Ganim’s biggest supporters during the recent mayoral campaign.
Perez is devoted to attending the daily lineups before officers go out on duty. “I tell them I got your back, you get mine,” he said, and that they should “treat people like you want to be treated.”
Perez said he did not find “his calling” until he was 28 and had tried banking. “It took me a short amount of time to realize this is the most noble of professions, you can make a big difference,” he said.
It was as a rookie police officer, Perez, said that he had the best day of his career. It took place at the infamous Father Panik Village, the state’s first public housing project, which was constructed in 1939 but by the 1980s had deteriorated into a slum and a haven for drug dealing and violence and the city began razing the crumbling buildings.
Perez and his partner were on a walking detail in what was left of the housing, which “looked like Beirut,” when they heard someone screaming from inside a building . They found an Hispanic woman with three small children laying on the floor about to give birth. Perez stayed while the other officer went to get medical help.
Suddenly, Perez recalled, the baby’s head started to appear and the rookie cop became unsure of what to do. However, the woman said, “Relax, I am going to help you.” She did and her little girl was safely delivered, making her birth day a special memory for the city’s top cop.
For many members of Bridgeport’s Latino community, March 4, was a memorable day. They came out in full force, along with non-Hispanic friends and admirers and fellow police officers, to see Perez receive his new badge at a public ceremony. He had been officially sworn in at a small gathering earlier in the day.
The crowd at the public gathering was so large that the second floor had to be opened to contain everyone, said Laffitte, who is putting together a celebration to honor his longtime friend, someone who has been called a “cop’s cop” and a “people’s cop” in online comments about his appointment.
Off duty, Perez likes to spend time with his family. He is married to another Cuban, Isabel Perez, and has three children: Kelly Ann, Armand and Gabriella Perez.