VALPARAISO — Patrol Sgt. Keith Perez was well aware of the woman who called in during his afternoon shift hoping police would return her cell phone.
The woman, who has at times been homeless, was a "frequent flier" with police and had overdosed a few weeks earlier, nearly dying before being pulled back to life with the help of the opiate-neutralizing drug Narcan, he said.
After twice meeting with her at her modest downtown apartment and arranging for her phone to be returned, Perez returned to his patrol vehicle and explained that sometimes part of his job is to just to listen to those desperate to be seen and heard.
"She really doesn't have many people in her life and she's had a hard life," he said.
A short time earlier, while watching for speeding motorists in a trouble spot elsewhere in the city, Perez, a 10-year veteran of the local force, said he places a high priority on how he carries out the responsibilities he is given as a police officer.
"I try to treat everyone with respect no matter what my contact with them," he said.
Perez, a 32-year-old married father of two who grew up in Schererville, followed in the public service footsteps of two relatives. His father, Roy Perez, served 30 years as a Hammond firefighter and his uncle Rich Perez, worked more than 30 years as a Hammond police officer.
"I think it's just kind of in my blood," Keith Perez said of the desire to help others. "It's about how I feel at the end of the day."
Perez said he was not all that familiar with Valparaiso when he joined the local force of 58 officers, but he has grown to love his new home and is "not looking back."
While patrolling a busy strip of Calumet Avenue, Perez hit his overhead lights and stopped a motorist for failing to a wear a seat belt. The driver did not make any excuses and said she simply forgot to put on her belt, but Perez considered the oversight a serious enough safety risk to provide her with a $25 reminder in the form of a ticket.
"I like to enforce seat belt violations," he said. "It does nothing but ensure their own safety. It's kind of zero tolerance for me."
A short time later, he responded to a minor crash. Traffic violations are the most frequent type of call he receives.
"Lots of distracted driving going on," he said.
Perez, who described himself as an adrenaline junkie, estimated that more than half his shift is typically pretty routine and quiet, given the safe nature of the community. But he said he has had a fair number of dangerous calls, which reminds him of the risky nature of the job and the desire of all police officers to simply make it home alive and well each night.
He said he had a wake up call along these lines during Valparaiso's Popcorn Festival when he was new to the force. Perez said he found himself in a foot chase with a boy accused of stealing from a local drug store and when he caught up with the suspect, the boy would not take his hands out of his pockets.
"I really should have Tasered him," he said. "I even told him that."
Turns out the boy was just trying to keep his pants up, but Perez said he would not repeat the mistake again.
"Just being too new of an officer," he said in regret.
Perez said he and other police officers are taught in the academy to remain vigilant at all times and aware that there are some who want to do them harm.
He said he has been headbutted unexpectedly and was the first responder to a 2012 call that resulted in a gunman holding hostages for seven hours at a local real estate office before taking his own life.
"When you wear this uniform you are a target," he said.
As he continued his patrol, Perez said when he finds himself getting a little too relaxed on the job, he need only think of his family.
"It gets me back into the zone," he said.
The risks of the job also weigh heavily on those close to Perez, including his mother.
"When I first started, she was like a wreck," he said. "But she's warmed up to it, so has my wife."
Hanging from the rear view mirror of his patrol vehicle were heart and cross medallions given to him by his mother.
Perez said his wife used to have trouble sleeping while he was on the job.
"If I was late like ten minutes, her heart would beat out of her chest," he said.
At just 3 and 1, Perez said his children are too young to understand much of what he does for a living. His oldest simply says his dad is "going to fight bad guys."
Perez said he would not hold his children back from following in his footsteps as a police officer, but does not want to see them in any danger.
"I'm not going to push it," he said.
After the sun set during his afternoon shift, Perez received a call from a woman claiming she and her young daughter were nearly struck by a motorist as they were leaving a local department store. The motorists allegedly yelled a profanity at the pair as she drove off.
After locating the suspect's vehicle at a nearby hardware store, Perez had the driver paged and waited in the parking area, but she never appeared. He left a phone message for the suspect and planned to follow through on what could amount to criminal charges.
Perez said he has seen a lot of bad on the job and is hit particularly hard by child victims.
"That's something that will tug at me," he said.
Another tough part of the job is having to notify individuals or families about someone's death.
"It's hard not to let it get to you," he said of the culmination of these experiences. "I do my best to see the best in people. I don't let emotions get the best of me."
Before heading back to the station to complete paperwork, Perez reflected on his future hopes as a police officer. He said he had spent three years doing investigative work and hopes to return to that someday.
"I see myself finishing my career back there in investigations," he said.
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