Things have changed dramatically for Luis Velez. Today instead of sitting at his desk and reading reports, figuring out personnel issues, budgets or dealing with problems that have spilled over into the headlines, he can smile and wonder how others deal with them.
The career cop who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City is comfortably retired in a place where mountains instead of palm trees or concrete and steel overpower the landscape. In retirement, the former top cop in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, sets his own schedule and agenda.
In a recent conversation, Velez looked back at his nearly four decades in law enforcement with a degree of pride and accomplishment. He talked about how he first got to Colorado Springs and the path he took once he became a cop. It was a path that took him from writing traffic tickets to investigating homicides to a stint as a police negotiator. It was all preparation for the ladder climb that would one day make him Colorado Springs and later, Pueblo’s, first Latino Chief of Police.
While he was in the Army, he got stationed at Fort Carson. And he loved it. “It was a lot quieter than New York City,” he said. It was certainly quieter than Viet Nam, where he spent a year in helicopter flight operations. But after the Army, Velez decided to do four more years in the military, this time in the Marine Corps. “I still wanted to wear the uniform.”
The military helped prepare him for law enforcement. “I enjoyed the military,” he said. It guided him to the career in public service he would have for 36 years. In 1975 he put on the badge as a Colorado Springs rookie cop.
Velez’ father was a cop, too. So was his brother. Both part of ‘New York’s finest.’ Velez’ son was a cop, too, but left law enforcement to become a financial planner. It was just the opposite for his father who went from crunching numbers as an accountant to a career in law enforcement.
Policing in the 21st century is a light year from the job a generation earlier. One thing that changed is department diversity. When he began police work, “I stood out as a Latino cop,” said Velez. There were also times when his climb caught the attention of more than a few cops for the wrong reasons. “At times, they might have said, ‘he just got the promotion because he was Hispanic.’” Of course, promotions came not only because of the quality of his work but as he gained more and more degrees. Before he retired, Velez may have been the only cop in Colorado to own a Ph.D.
After leaving the top job in Colorado Springs, Velez took a similar position in Pueblo, a city he said he knew but not well. Today, he calls the city “a great town with wonderful people.” But Pueblo, he said, had problems with gangs and drugs. The combination caused its crime rate to be disproportionately high compared to other Colorado cities.
“Instead of being myopic, we had to widen our ability and leverage our resources,” said Velez. The problems remain but to a far lesser degree. “We had to become much closer to the Sheriff’s Department.” Partnerships with the FBI, DEA and Homeland Security helped, as well. The department is now nationally accredited, one of the goals Velez had for it when he took the job.
Pueblo’s cops today are a “community-oriented department that deals with neighborhood groups,” he said. The city, like all cities, has its challenges. But in Colorado Springs where he once held the top cop job and in Pueblo where he held the same position, problems are identified and solutions and remedies are, too.
Still, while communication is now a vital part of the job, “there are those times when a police officer has to be very direct,” he said. “It’s the kind of profession where you can go from having a friendly dialogue to having a lethal encounter in a matter of second,” said Velez. A good cop can do both.