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Metra names new police chief to get ‘antiquated’ force on track

Metra’s new police chief said Monday he wants more Metra police riding trains to protect passengers as he took over the helm of a force once blasted as “antiquated” and “in crisis.’’

Joseph Perez, 50, a decorated State Police commander, said his “No. 1 priority” will be the safety of Metra riders.

His vow to put more police on trains followed a scathing report last year by consultant Hillard Heintze, which included what the consultant called the “remarkable” finding that “Metra officers rarely ride trains.’’ As a result, Metra announced a more visible police presence on and around trains last year.

Perez, most recently the Commander of State Police Region 1, will be making $161,066 a year and will have access to a free car as Metra’s new police chief.

“I am confident Chief Perez is the right man for the job,’’ Metra CEO Don Orseno said in introducing Perez to the media Monday.

“He has the experience and background we need to transform the department so that it is better prepared to ensure the safety and security of riders, staff, assets and infrastructure.’’

Last August, Hillard Heintze — hired by Metra — issued a more than 100-page report portraying the Metra police department as “antiquated,’’ in “crisis,’’ poorly trained, mired in excessive overtime and more concerned about protecting Metra property than its passengers.

Perez, a 28-year State Police veteran, called Metra’s police overtime a “glaring” problem. Hillard Heintze said the $2.4 million 2012 overtime tab comprised almost 17 percent of the department’s budget, instead of a typical 5 to 6 percent.

However, Perez said he wants to study the issue more closely to determine whether the problem is because of how the force is allocated or a manpower shortage.

Asked if he would consider hiring Chicago Police officers under contract to patrol Metra trains, as the Chicago Transit Authority does, Perez said he did not favor mixing police departments. Metra should be protected by Metra personnel, he said.

However, Orseno jumped in to say that Perez had “just joined the team” last Monday and still needed time to make his recommendations.

Orseno said Metra launched a “very robust” search process to find Perez, culling through 68 candidates.

His hiring follows roughly $300,000 in consulting work by Hillard Heintze. The consultant was paid $100,000 for its initial comprehensive assessment of the Metra police department, and then received a $200,000 contract to help Metra find a police chief, to provide an interim police chief during the search, and to help the new chief implement Hillard Heintze’s 50 recommendations. Orseno said the $200,000 contract goes through July but may be less if the consultant’s services are ended earlier.

Perez comes to Metra from State Police Region 1, where he served as commander and oversaw nearly 800 officers and civilians in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and DeKalb counties.

Over his 14 years as a command officer, he supervised patrol, investigative and specialty units, managed the training of rookie troopers and planned the security of several events, including the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago. A service ribbon for his NATO work was among his State-Police issued awards.