If Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez is supposed to be a man fighting for his political future, he sure doesn’t act like it.
Outspoken and direct, Perez is confident in his abilities as Hudson County’s top cop, confident about his track record in office, and even confident that he’ll win reelection.
To win, however, he’ll first need to defeat his chief Democratic opponent, Hudson County Undersheriff Frank Schillari of Secaucus, who has already garnered support from a number of political heavyweights. North Bergen Mayor and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco has endorsed him. So has Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise.
None of which seemed to disturb the sheriff last week when he sat down for an interview with the Reporter.
“If you look at the department I inherited, and what it is now, we’ve achieved a lot.” – Juan Perez
‘I could build this organization’
Perez ran for sheriff after serving for 26 years with the New Jersey State Police and retired as a captain. He was working as Deputy Director of the Jersey City Police Department when he decided to run for Hudson County Sheriff.
With the support of Hudson County’s top Democrats, including Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy and the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), Perez decided to run for the sheriff’s post in 2007.
“When I came in here, I spoke to the officers and I could see that morale was down,” Perez said. “Officers had been told not to write tickets. They weren’t locking up any drunks. They were not doing any accident investigations. They were told just to [patrol] the county parks. To me, the department was still in the 19th century. Their communication system was old. I looked at this department and I knew it could be a good organization. I knew I could build this organization and make these guys proud of who they are and where they work.”
Perez took office in 2008 and immediately began shaking up the department of 231 uniformed officers and 115 civilian staff – and all for the better, he said.
He believed his officers were underpaid and promised to get them a better contract, under which officers would receive a 30 percent wage increase. A senior officer in the department can now receive a top salary of $84,500, which the sheriff credits for low turnover in the department. High turnover rates, he said, had been a problem under his predecessor. Fifty-seven new officers have been hired since 2008, he said, while only five have left the department.
The department will soon have an enhanced K-9 unit; four dogs are currently being trained to sniff out bombs, an important asset in a region that could be a target for terrorist attacks. The dogs and their training are being paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the unit will be the first of its kind for the Sheriff’s Department.
(Schillari has, however, been critical of the overemphasis on bomb-sniffing. He has argued that the department should have a diversified K-9 unit that includes dogs trained to sniff out cadavers and drugs, as well as bombs.)
During Perez’s tenure, officers have begun using handheld computer devices that can quickly access law enforcement databases and obtain such information as outstanding warrants that have been issued.
Professionalizing the department has also been among his priorities. He has, he said, encouraged officers to continue their education and training, an opportunity of which many in the department have taken advantage. The sheriff said he lobbied to have tuition reimbursement added to the officers’ labor contract, “because the more officers who go to school, the smarter and better they are.”
Officers are currently being trained to be medical investigators. Under the program, “if there’s a dead body, our guys will go out and will do the initial investigation to check to see whether it’s a suspicious death,” Perez noted.
Currently he is trying to have the Sheriff’s Department accredited by the New Jersey State Chiefs of Police Assoc., something only a handful of law enforcement departments in New Jersey have pursued or obtained.
‘Leave it to the voters’
But Perez’s “proactive management style,” as he called it, has not been popular with some of his officers, or with some local mayors. Two weeks ago, several sources interviewed said members of Perez’s staff found him to be abrasive and heavy-handed, and they claimed his emphasis on professionalism has instead created a culture of fear.
Perez, however, believes his critics have overstated the level of dissention in the department.
Similarly, he said last week that his relationship with local mayors “is good. Whenever they need something, our department is always there to provide reinforcements, back-up help, whatever they need.”
He said he “can’t explain” why Democratic Party support is shifting way from him and towards Schillari. “I’m really surprised by it.”
Perez believes he can still beat Schillari, even with fewer resources – such as campaign donations – endorsements, or HCDO support.
“I’m going to campaign hard, highlight what I’ve done over the last two and a half years and leave it to the voters,” he said. “I have tremendous faith in Hudson County voters. They’re intelligent. And I think when they see what I’ve accomplished here, they’ll reelect me.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.