From time to time, Riverhead Police Officer Byron Perez glances over at the badge on the shoulder of his police uniform. It’s the seal of the Riverhead Town Police Department, the force of the only home Mr. Perez has ever known.
Since he was a child, Mr. Perez dreamed of joining that department. Now 31 years old, he said it’s hard to believe he’s making history as a Riverhead cop.
“It’s just crazy how I’m here,” he said.
Mr. Perez’s story is the quintessential American Dream: the son of a farm laborer from Guatemala who grew up to become his hometown’s first full-time Hispanic police officer.
But Mr. Perez doesn’t want any special treatment.
He’s a cop first and foremost, he told the News-Review, like all the other officers in the department.
“When it comes down to it, I’m just like them,” he said. “I just speak a language that’s spoken a lot in this town.”
His goal is simply to give back to the town that’s done nothing but support him throughout his life, he said. A Riverhead native, Mr. Perez is already paying it forward.
With little more than a year on the job, he not only helps to bridge the gap between law enforcement and Riverhead’s growing Hispanic population but also volunteers with the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, providing a role model for dozens of young students.
“I want to give back to this community, because this is my community,” Mr. Perez said. “If I can help one person, it doesn’t matter what language they are, it’s awesome.”
Mr. Perez’s father, Trancito, was among the first Guatemalan immigrants to arrive in Riverhead.
A hardworking man armed with a residency visa, he flew from San Raymundo to California in the 1970s looking for a “better life for his family,” Mr. Perez said.
After bouncing around the country working factory jobs, Trancito Perez finally landed in Riverhead. His wife, Roselia, and Byron’s brother, Hansel, soon joined him from Guatemala.
“I’m glad he picked this town,” Mr. Perez said.
Since then, more than 1,400 other Guatemalan immigrants have come to Riverhead, creating the largest of any Hispanic group in town. Surprisingly, many are also from San Raymundo, which Mr. Perez said most of Riverhead’s Guatemalan residents once called home.
Byron Perez was born at Stony Brook University Hospital. He likes to joke that he’s seen everywhere in Riverhead, since his family moved around town but has never lived outside it.
In the 1990s, his father, mother and brother became naturalized American citizens.
While his father worked his way up the ranks at Delea Sod Farm, Mr. Perez stayed in school, learning English at Riley Avenue Elementary School and working odd jobs across town from Tanger Outlets to Splish Splash. A Riverhead High School graduate, he later earned a degree in criminal justice from Suffolk County Community College.
When his mother — the “rock of the family,” whom Mr. Perez calls his best friend — fell ill with complications from diabetes and heart disease, he and his family cared for her. She died of a stroke in 2011.
With his brother finding success as a graphic designer in Manhattan, Mr. Perez decided to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer. There was only one option he could imagine.
Mr. Perez said his family cried when Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller called him personally in December 2014 to offer him a spot on the force.
“I wouldn’t want to be in any other department,” he said.
“These people have good hearts,” he said of his fellow officers. “Everybody has taken me under their wing.”
Chief Hegermiller said Mr. Perez’s natural Spanish language skill is already helping the department.
“I wish more guys spoke Spanish fluently,” he said. “It’s probably just human nature that you want to communicate with someone speaking your language.”
The chief recommended that, in addition to his duties as a patrol officer, Mr. Perez serve as a department representative to Riverhead Community Awareness Program, a nonprofit group that teaches students in the Riverhead School District about positive life choices.
Felicia Scocozza, executive director of Riverhead CAP, said the kids love Mr. Perez. “It really helps bridge the gap within our community. It’s a win-win for the Riverhead police department and for CAP and the Riverhead students,” she said.
Since October, Mr. Perez has visited Pulaski Street Elementary School once a month, teaching Spanish-speaking students through the program, sometimes doing so on his day off. This year marks the biggest push to connect to those students, Ms. Scocozza said, as Mr. Perez is able to translate all their learning materials into Spanish. That helps the roughly two dozen students understand the entirety of Riverhead CAP’s message.
“Many speak some English, but we want them to understand all the aspects of what we’re trying to teach them,” Ms. Scocozza said.
Mr. Perez, who said he wants to participate in the program for as long as he can, also serves as an important role model for the students, no matter what language they speak.
“It shows them there’s someone in law enforcement that cares about them and cares about their well-being,” she said.
Mr. Perez’s efforts come amid demographic changes in Riverhead. In 2014, 52 percent of the 5,041 students enrolled in local schools were minorities, outnumbering white students for the first time.
Hispanics are the largest group among those minorities, accounting for roughly 3 of every 10 students in the high school and middle schools, according to the 2014 demographic study. Townwide, Hispanics comprise 14 percent of Riverhead’s population, according to the 2010 census.
“Changes are happening in the community and the community needs to adapt to changes in a positive way,” Ms. Scocozza said.
While other officers in the Riverhead police department can speak some Spanish, Mr. Perez — who still speaks Spanish with his father — is the department’s first native speaker. In addition, his familiarity with Guatemalan culture can be an asset to the department, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College.
“Language by itself is not an answer,” she said, noting there are more than two dozen ethnic groups within Hispanic culture. “It’s not enough to say you have a Hispanic officer.”
Having a cop who not only speaks the language but understands the culture can make it easier for police to do their job.
But both she and Chief Hegermiller were quick to point out that police departments shouldn’t ignore other, more important, skills in a new hire just because the officer can speak Spanish.
“It’s not just about cops who speak other languages,” Ms. Haberfeld said. “Language is an add-on to those skills. It’s not a prerequisite.”
For years, the Riverhead police department has made an effort to connect with the Hispanic residents, Chief Hegermiller said. Its work in the schools impacts a largely minority population and, until recently, officers could study Spanish in their patrol cars. A so-called translation phone in the lobby at police headquarters allows those who can’t speak English to file police reports and provide tips through a translator.
But that can be slow going at times, the chief said. Mr. Perez said that during his past few months on patrol, he’s noticed that Hispanic residents seem to gravitate toward him.
“I walk up, ask how they’re doing,” Mr. Perez said. “It’s like a magnet. They come straight to me … making that first contact like that, now they know they have someone to talk to.”
Many can’t believe a Guatemalan is a Riverhead cop, but are excited to learn Mr. Perez’s family came from their native country.
Mr. Perez said his fluency in Spanish lets him understand not just what residents are saying, but how they’re saying it. Are they happy or sad? Upset or scared? Those subtle emotional cues can help Mr. Perez relay more accurate information to fellow officers handling a scene.
Talking to Hispanic residents directly is also faster — much faster, Mr. Perez said. A conversation that could take a half-hour through a translator can be wrapped up in minutes with Mr. Perez on the scene.
Some Hispanic residents ask to speak to Mr. Perez personally, he said.
“They’ll keep on coming back until they find me,” he joked.
Ms. Haberfeld said these kinds of interactions can put a “human face on the police profession” and show otherwise disconnected parts of the population that law enforcement officers are their allies.
“Policing as a profession can be scary to certain communities, especially with immigrants,” she said.
Growing up, Mr. Perez said he never encountered racism in Riverhead, getting nothing but support from his teachers, neighbors and friends. The police force, he said, also treats every person in Riverhead with respect.
But he’s saddened by a recent rise in harsh rhetoric being spewed against Hispanic residents. He notices it on Facebook and in comment threads on news stories. It’s a side of Riverhead he never saw before.
Mr. Perez said others are entitled to their opinions. But he urged people to remember that Hispanic people in Riverhead aren’t outsiders, but are part of the same community.
“That ‘illegal’ that you’re talking all this stuff about? Their child might grow up and become a doctor … he might save your life later,” Mr. Perez said. “This ‘illegal’ that came in the ’70s? His son might help you. He’s a Riverhead cop now.”
Photo caption: Officer Perez speaks Spanish with a man outside the Riverhead Police Department. The man, who needed to pay a traffic ticket, had asked Mr. Perez for help, something the cop says happens often when he encounters Hispanic residents.