News & Politics

Perez Heads the Bowie Police Force

The town of Bowie has a brand-new police force, and the veteran street cop who heads it is tough, capable, and brave. She's come a long way to get there.

On a Saturday afternoon, the residents of Bowie are walking their dogs, jogging, and unloading groceries when they encounter an entirely new scene: The first six members of the Bowie police department, wearing new uniforms and driving shiny new cruisers emblazoned with the words service with integrity, have fanned out across the city. They stroll through the malls, introducing themselves to store owners and customers. Residents greet the officers with smiles.

The day of saturation patrolling was designed by Chief Katherine Perez to introduce Bowie to its first-ever police force, which will grow to 57 officers.

One of Prince George’s County’s most liveable communities, Bowie is in the midst of an economic boom. Home values are rising fast. New developments have brought in affluent residents. Bowie boasts the lowest crime rate in the county. Nearly two years ago, 77 percent of Bowie voters, fearing that the city had grown too large for Prince George’s County police to respond to quickly, approved a measure creating their own police department. City officials gave Katherine Perez the job of building the force from the ground up.

Perez has a history of being a “first.” The 45-year-old native of Hartford, Connecticut, served for 21 years in that city’s police department. She rose through the ranks of some 500 officers—becoming the first Latina sergeant, lieutenant, and captain—and retired third in the department’s chain of command.

Bowie is Prince George’s County’s largest and most racially diverse municipality, a community with a reputation for being progressive and family-friendly. Perez is a near-perfect symbol of all that.

The daughter of a Polish mother and a Puerto Rican father, she has an African-American husband, and they are raising her adopted African-American daughter and a Puerto Rican/Dominican foster son she’s in the process of adopting. She became the legal guardian of, and raised, her now-adult nephew. Her blended family includes two children from her husband’s previous marriage.

All these crosscurrents of race and identity, achievement and commitment are an expression of how Katherine Perez built her own American dream from a childhood that often was a nightmare.

Chief Perez pulls into the parking lot in front of Bowie High School. It’s a school day, but two teenagers are loitering on the sidewalk. “Hello, gentlemen,” she says, rolling down her window.

One of them leans forward. “I don’t go to Bowie High School, ma’am,” he says. “I’m just standing here with my friend who goes there. He’s on early release.”

“Early release?” Perez says, laughing at the prison term Bowie seniors use to describe getting out of school early to go to jobs and internships.

“Move along now, gentlemen. Move along,” she says.

When Perez was their age, she remembers, her mother told her, “You’ll never be nothing. Don’t bother trying because you won’t make it.”

In the south end of Hartford, where she grew up, Perez’s childhood was marked by welfare and food stamps and by physical and emotional abuse. Her parents were divorced. Her mother beat Perez and her younger siblings. When Perez called her father, who lived on the Connecticut shore, to come and intervene, her mother called the cops on him. “She was so violent, abusive, and difficult that it sapped him emotionally and limited his ability to offer the kind of help he wanted to,” says Perez.

Kathy Perez was the oldest and quickest to challenge her mother, and she got the harshest treatment. She often stepped in to shield her siblings from her mother.

“She was hard on me because I questioned everything she did,” Perez says. “I didn’t go with the flow. She would tell me all the time, ‘You’re going to be on welfare, you’re going to have kids by a bunch of different men, you’re a whore.’ But I would think to myself, ‘You are so wrong. I am going to prove you wrong.’ ”

Perez once ran away from home, hiding under a building across the street from her house. She watched for several hours to see if her mother would come looking for her. She never did. When she finally went home in the evening, her mother greeted her with a whipping.

To cope, Perez created small oases of escape. She found refuge in books. She studied hard and made the honor roll. Before school, she delivered newspapers.

Sometimes her mother took her paper-route money, telling her daughter to tell her boss she’d been jumped so he might reimburse her. “Every day was a moral crisis in my home,” she says.

After a teacher discovered bruises on her sister and reported it to authorities, Perez, her brother, and one of her sisters were put into foster care. Her father provided some financial support, but for the next two years they lived in foster homes that ranged from bearable to terrible. One set of foster parents, in charge of ten children, stayed high on marijuana and alcohol and left the children to fend for themselves. Later Perez moved in with a family living in a black neighborhood where she was called “white girl” and taunted to speak Spanish. She was urged to “pick a side,” a racial zone where she could be labeled.

She bounced from school to school. Her brother was falling into a web of crime—burglaries, car thefts, and drugs. Perez found a lifeline in school and a program called Police Explorer.

The program was an apprenticeship for students who wanted to go into law enforcement as a career. “I always knew I wanted to be a cop,” Perez says. “I thought I’d be Angie Dickinson and Perry Mason all rolled into one.”

At 16, Perez was placed in an independent-living program that allowed youth in foster care to live on their own with a modicum of supervision and a small stipend. Perez’s home became the YMCA. After school she worked at Bradlees Department Store; she ate dinner at McDonald’s because she couldn’t cook in her room.

Her Police Explorer advisers and Bill Pinto, the social worker assigned to work with her and her brother and sisters, became her surrogate fathers. Years later, as a captain on the police force, Perez presented Pinto with an award from the city of Hartford.

The most important thing to Perez always was taking care of her family. Her siblings often ran away from their foster-care placements and sought shelter with her. In 11th grade she dropped out of school and went to work full-time at Hartford Hospital and part-time at a grocery store to provide the extra money needed for the family’s food and clothes. She enrolled in night classes and earned her diploma. She got a summer internship with the National Labor Relations Board and then was hired as a secretary. One of the investigators, Blanca Torres, a Georgetown Law graduate who shared Perez’s Puerto Rican heritage, took an interest in her.

Torres had grown up in Hartford, too, but a world away from the south end Perez knew. Torres took her to New York to see museums and Latino plays. She introduced her to her friends, many of them Latino doctors and lawyers. Perez began to look at other Puerto Ricans and say, proudly, “That’s my people.”

Of those years, Perez is unflinching and straight-talk tough as she says, “Being in foster care was a badge of honor for me. If you can get through that, you can get through anything. It taught me the value of struggle.”

With her new sense of pride, Perez joined the Army Reserve. The 12 weeks of basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, would make her more attractive as a police recruit, and the money she earned from enlisting would allow her to go to college.

While in Alabama she met and married a young Cuban, but the marriage lasted only six months.

Back in Hartford after basic training, she entered the police academy and then joined the Hartford police force. It was 1983, and female police officers were still a novelty. The sexism she faced was relentless and often crude. But for Perez the resistance of her fellow officers was a replay of the refrain she had heard from her mother and battled every day to overcome: “You’ll never be nothing.”

“I didn’t get the memo,” Perez says with a smile. “My personality was that I could do anything.”

Once when an officer blasted her with what Perez calls a “pornographic, sexist, expletive-filled tirade,” she shot back: “You ever even think of saying that again and I’m going to leave you on the side of the road. I’ll let you explain to the sergeant what you’re doing on West Service Road walking the beat.”

She learned that in policing, reputation is everything. Perez gained a reputation as tough, capable, even brave.

Policing her hometown and the people she had grown up with was a challenge. She arrested her first boyfriend, who was charged with domestic violence. Fellow officers arrested her brother for car theft. But Perez flourished, especially on the streets, where she spent 15 of her 21 years with the force. She enjoyed talking to people in the neighborhoods, putting a human face on the uniform and badge. Like most cops, Perez never had to fire her weapon, but she came close.

One night she was called to a domestic dispute in one of Hartford’s poorest areas. She found a distraught, drug-addicted, Spanish-speaking male holding his family hostage with a knife and threatening to kill himself. Perez confronted the man in the living room of his apartment, with two officers, their weapons trained on him, a few feet behind her. “I was like, ‘Hold your fire, hold on—I’m talking to him,’ ” she says, of her fear that her fellow officers might act too quickly with lethal force. Her fluency in Spanish helped. “I told the man, ‘You can beat this.’ ”

Perez was decorated for her handling of the situation. “I got a medal for not killing him, which is probably when you deserve a medal more, because it takes more for you to try to avoid shooting someone than pulling the trigger,” she says.

Perez also won honors for apprehending a robbery suspect and for a capture in which she was stabbed in the leg by a young female suspect.

“She always wanted to do better and to go where people didn’t go before, especially as a Latina,” says Daryl K. Roberts, chief of the Hartford police department. “She always wanted to prove she could do things people said she couldn’t do.”

In 1991, seven years after joining the force, Perez became a sergeant. Nine years later, as a captain, she was chosen to supervise the department’s youth-services division. She was raising her brother’s son and attending Trinity College part-time, working on a degree in political science.

Perez had managed to overcome most of the effects of the emotional and physical abuse that had undermined her siblings’ journeys to adulthood. Everything seemed harder for them, and she knew they needed for her to succeed.

In her new post, she could use the lessons of her childhood to help others. The youth-services division investigated allegations of physical and sexual abuse against children. Some days the volume of cases involving rape, starvation, violence, and murder that the youth-services division handled made her wonder if every kid in Hartford were in some kind of danger.

Taking on the assignment with missionary zeal, Perez brought in new detectives and reinvigorated the division’s efforts to clear a backlog of hundreds of cases. She required more accountability from detectives and worked closely with the families of young victims.

Perez had given up any further ideas about marriage; the demands of her job, she figured, were just too much. And her rise through the ranks of the department seemed to intimidate many men. So she decided to create the family she’d always wanted through adoption. At the urging of a friend from Trinity College, Perez took classes to become licensed as an adoptive parent. “I just felt I had all these blessings and I had to share them,” she says.

Jonathan, a six-year-old Puerto Rican/Dominican boy, became her foster son. Three years later she adopted an African-American girl she named Dominique. “When I got the call from the agency, I went and saw her, and she looked like this little angel. . . . I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have a daughter.’ ”

With her nephew Michael and Jonathan and Dominique, Perez had the family she wanted. She decided to give her mother a second chance, this time as a grandmother. For years Perez had tried to talk about her childhood wounds with her mother, who denied everything, acting, Perez says, “as if she didn’t know what I was talking about.” It made real reconciliation impossible. But when her mother was around Jonathan and Dominique, Perez saw a different side of her. She became an affectionate, doting grandmother. “My kids loved her,” Perez said. “They never saw a bad side of my mother at all.”

After ten years of part-time study, Perez earned a college degree and enrolled for a master’s in public administration at Trinity. This was enough, she thought. But in 2003, shortly after her mother died, she met Allan Grines. The 39-year-old Army major and divorced father of two was stationed in Rhode Island and planning to retire after 23 years in the Army. He had been a Black Hawk pilot and was working on a master’s degree in national-security and strategic studies at the War College in Rhode Island. Perez’s father, a World War II paratrooper, hit it off with Allan immediately.

Perez visited Grines three times while he was stationed in Korea. When he was reassigned to Fort Meade, Virginia, to work with the National Security Agency, Perez retired from the Hartford police force and moved with her children to live with him in Bowie. They married in November 2006.

Perez was retired but still a cop at heart. She needed a challenge, so she interviewed for the job of police chief in District Heights, Maryland. She was hired two days later. When Perez told one of her mentors that District Heights was a small community of 7,500, he replied, “A chief is a chief is a chief, and you did it.”

Although the department was small, Perez was greeted by lots of challenges. District Heights is often perceived to be a high-crime area because of the number of murders occurring in neighboring jurisdictions. Morale was low in the department, it was understaffed, and there were personnel and discipline problems. “I remember her saying over and over, you can never go wrong by doing the right thing. That’s what she lived by,” says John Nesky, who was acting chief in District Heights when Perez arrived and now serves as her deputy in Bowie.

First Perez tackled the issue of police presence. “If people look at a community and never see cops around, then that community is a potential target for crime,” she says. The biggest crime in District Heights was auto theft. Perez felt that the atmosphere in District Heights—people hanging around, drinking on corners—was a key to the problem. She had officers start breaking up groups of loiterers, issuing summonses, and enforcing curfew laws for young people. Homeowner complaints decreased dramatically.

Perez recruited new officers, increasing the force from five to eight, and secured funds for a department of 12 officers. She found federal and local grant money to buy new cars and provide professional training. By the end of her two-year tenure, District Heights officers who had greeted her with skepticism were affectionately calling her “Chief” and crediting her with bringing about a new day in the department.

In 2005, Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich appointed Perez the state’s independent juvenile-justice Monitor. Her job was to monitor the state’s juvenile-justice system for compliance with laws regulating child welfare and rights. Perez wrote and released reports on juvenile care and treatment in Maryland’s 21 detention centers. She visited facilities for inspections. On her third day on the job, she toured the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center in Laurel, where through a window she saw a male guard punching a detainee who had made a sarcastic comment to him about looking at a female guard’s backside. Perez reported the incident to the guard’s supervisor and launched an investigation into the center’s staffing practices.

She found cases of children sleeping on bathroom floors because of overcrowding. Abuses were widespread. Many officials were not trained. Perez began clearing up the backlog of overdue reports.

“She just had this real passion for advocacy for youth,” says Yusuf Muhammad, deputy director of the monitoring unit. “The young people loved her. When she went to the facilities, she talked to the young people, shared her background with them, used it as a tool to show that you can overcome anything. She inspired them.”

The Baltimore Sun published a series of articles based on her findings. Child-welfare advocates who had long pushed for reform praised the reports, issued regularly as part of Perez’s job, but the Sun series based on them, which included headlines such as youths beat 15-year-old at detention center in city, was highly critical of the Ehrlich administration. Kenneth Montague, Maryland’s secretary for juvenile services, accused Perez of providing the reports to mar the Republican governor’s reputation. In a press conference, he accused Perez of playing politics.

Perez responded with a press conference defending the impartiality of her findings. With each report, the sniping from the governor’s office and the Department of Juvenile Services increased. Perez’s findings were not challenged, but she was accused of not following proper procedures. For Perez, the failure to protect the rights of juvenile detainees in the reports was demoralizing.

“I kept thinking, God put me here for a reason to expose this stuff, but the system was so corrupt, so broken, and I couldn’t fix it,” she says. After nine months, she stepped down.

Bowie isn’t the city it used to be. In 1990 its population was 90 percent white. Today 40 percent of its population is African-American and other racial groups. The city has benefited economically and socially from an influx of young, professional African-Americans from throughout the county.

Three years ago Bowie established a Diversity Committee, in part to respond to a spate of hate crimes that Elveeta Dixon, head of the committee, says are “rare, isolated, and do not reflect the true spirit of the city.”

But the growing population also meant an increasing possibility of more serious crimes.

Mayor G. Frederick Robinson worried that the city had become complacent. Crime was low, but there had been a small increase in robberies and car thefts. The desire for a more visible police presence was often expressed at community hearings.

Perez, already an active volunteer member of Bowie’s Public Safety Committee, was a perfect fit to lead the new department. Once hired, she took on the job with characteristic fervor, even designing the officers’ uniforms and coming up with the motto “service with integrity.” She led efforts to reach out to the community and worked with the City Council on budget and staff issues.

“What impressed me about Kathy Perez is that she is truly a part of this community,” says Kelly Anderson, a Bowie resident who also volunteers with the public-safety committee.

“In Bowie, people jump at the chance to tell us what’s going on,” Perez says. “When I go to PTA meetings and open forums, people are eager to tell me what is going on in their neighborhoods.”

One of the things Perez says she wants the Bowie police department to do is develop a Police Explorer program like the one that helped her. She knows it could make a real difference in the lives of young people in the city she now calls home.

Driving along Route 450 in her cruiser, Perez passes Saint Pius X, the Catholic school her daughter attends. Her foster son is a senior down the road at Bowie High School. Both are less than ten minutes from Bowie Police Department headquarters.

“I like being close to where they are,” she says. At the next stoplight, a passerby shouts greetings. Perez waves back.

“Everybody has a story about the first time they saw a Bowie police-department cruiser,” she says. “These are hard-working people. They have nice homes, and they want to keep the lives they have worked so hard for, and that’s what we all want.”