Boston Police Officer Paulo Pereira has worn a lot of hats in his 43 years. Born in Angola, he has worked as custodian, as an airman in the US Air Force, and as a microbiologist. And in 2003, he joined the Boston Police Department as a patrolman.
These days, the people whom he encounters on his beat in the Bowdoin Street neighborhood know him, affectionately, by a different title.
“We call him ‘The General,’ ” says Miguel Santana, owner and manager of Pollo Centro, a popular restaurant that opened on Bowdoin Street last year. “His shoes are always shining, he’s got his hat on, he’s always professional. He keeps that separation between civilian and police, but at the same time, he’s always going out of his way to be friendly.”
“He’s truly one of a kind,” says Santana.
Pereira is the walking beat officer for the business district on Bowdoin Street, a main artery that runs west from Meetinghouse Hill to Washington Street. By all accounts, including a walk-along with him by the Reporter on a recent shift, his behavior is free of any pretense or salute to rank suggested by his nickname.
As he strolls from business to business, pivoting effortlessly from Cape Verdean Creole to Spanish to English, he greets store owners and employees by name and passers-by with a smile and a nod. Some don’t smile back, but most do. He seems to know everyone, often cracking a joke, offering a handshake or a hello: “Tudo bem?” “Como está?” “How are you my friend?”
Nearly everyone we meet knows who Paulo is, even “Loco,” the resident troublemaker toward whom Pereira is always casting a wary eye.
Rev. Richard “Doc” Conway, himself a longtime peace-seeking presence on the streets of Bowdoin-Geneva with his pastoral work at St. Peter’s parish, offers a succinct diagnosis of Officer Pereira: “He’s a people person.” The priest adds, “I was walking with him along his beat one day when suddenly some lady comes out of a restaurant and gives him a kiss! Now I had heard of community policing, but this was new to me. Turns out they went to kindergarten together in Cape Verde.”
Pereira grew up on Cape Verde and moved to the Boston area as a teenager. According to Fr. Conway, it’s his innate understanding of the language and the culture that makes his methods of community policing so effective in an area that includes many immigrants, including a large proportion of Cape Verdeans.
Pereira, too, is aware of the dynamic. “Language is important in two ways, both in the linguistic sense and in the content itself,” he explains. “If someone speaks Spanish, I’ll speak Spanish with them. But you’ve also got to speak their language in the other sense, using the words they would use, speaking the way they would. It shows you understand where they’re coming from, and that goes a long way.”
He is a dedicated student who tries to apply what he has learned about sociology and psychology to the areas where they intersect with his police work.
Some background to that learning included studying microbiology at the Air Force Academy after which he worked for the Department of Defense. But that grew tedious after a while, he says.
“I just couldn’t be stuck in a lab all day. I need to be outside.” So he returned to Boston to pursue a criminal justice degree at UMass Boston, from which he graduated cum laude. He then joined the police force, where he says he was one of the oldest cadets in the program, “but also,” he adds with a wink, “one of the strongest.”
The movement towards more academic-based strategy and policy is part of what Pereira calls “a new era of policing.”
One issue this approach aims to address is the “code of the street” — the taboo on “snitching” or reporting criminal activity to the police. Just by interacting daily with the people around him and establishing a friendly rapport, Pereira says, more and more people are comfortable with coming forward and reporting incidents to him.
At one point during this walk on his beat, he is called aside to mediate a dispute between two friends over an unpaid debt of twenty dollars. After several minutes of raised voices and wild gesticulations, he translates the showdown into English with a chuckle and a shake of the head. “That’s part of what I do, too,” he says after apparently diffusing the standoff.
Not all interactions on Bowdoin Street are as innocuous. As we pass a street corner, he points to where he once responded to the sounds of gunfire to find a male victim on the sidewalk with multiple bullet wounds. He explains how the victim, even while bleeding out on the ground, refused to divulge who shot him.
This is the mentality Pereira is working to change by building a framework of trust, but he acknowledges that changing the way people think is a gradual process. And he admits that even his own attitude toward the police has changed.
“Before becoming an officer, I didn’t like policing. I had some bad experiences with the police, and I decided that if I don’t like it, I gotta do something about it. That’s why I joined.”
This background speaks to Pereira’s empathetic approach as an officer. He tries to view situations from all sides, and it helps that he looks like and speaks like many of the people he protects and serves, a reality that is not always the case with police forces in American cities.
The number of Cape Verdeans in the BPD has grown in recent years as the immigrant population has expanded, but it is still under-representative of the community. A few years ago, Pereira and several fellow Cape Verdean officers started the Cabo Verde Police Association, a group that has organized fundraiser brunches for seniors, holiday toy drives for kids, and other events that branch out from the department to the community.
They are on the front lines of this nationwide effort to change policing for the better. The task can seem daunting, but Pereira shows that fundamental change can begin with something as small as a smile.
“The whole idea of community policing – he’s the example of that,” says Father Conway. “This is what we need to have more of.”
It may seem antithetical to the way most cops are portrayed or even taught to be – cool, detached, jaded. But in line with this wave of thinking, Pereira says his job boils down to one thing. “The key is caring.”