When Angel Novalez moved to Chicago as a young boy in the 1970s from Puerto Rico, he never imagined he had what it takes to become a Chicago police officer, let alone one of the department’s top brass.
Now a commander of the 5th District, he also is the first Latino to head CPD’s office of community policing.
Restoring trust has never been more important and Novalez is working hard to make it happen.
He knows the city well from growing up here. And as a boy remembers officers in the 13th District who organized youth sports leagues and encouraged him to take up the challenge of becoming a police officer.
“They inspired me to want to do that job,” he said. “In those days I didn’t think a job like that was attainable, being Hispanic from Puerto Rico.”
Novalez oversees the CAPS program as well as the neighborhood policing initiative.
“It’s a huge responsibility and Supt Brown chose me for a reason and he wants us to make sure we create better conditions for officers and the community,” he said. ”I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Novalez is also responsible for the success of the pilot district coordinator officer program in the 25th Dsitrict. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPD expanded the program to three additional districts.
Novalez rose through the ranks at CPD and started out as a beat cop in the 12th District in Pilsen. He said being able to speak Spanish was invaluable.
“When you’re able to speak the language, it makes people a little more comfortable,” he said. “It’s almost an instant sense of trust, not total, but a sense of trust.”
And he said being bilingual helped him educate his fellow officers.
“Other officers would call me to translate,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to teach them a little about the culture and some of the behaviors that make people apprehensive.”
Novalez was promoted to sergeant and spent 10 years in the 3rd District and the 5th District which includes Chicago’s Roseland community.
He said his time working in the African American community was key in helping him develop skills in community policing.
“Engage people outside the traditional transaction, the search warrant or traffic stop,” he said. “We want to engage folks just for the sake of engaging them. That way that tension is not there and people can have a real conversation and get to know each other as people.”
After being promoted to lieutenant, he worked in the departments procedural justice program which teaches officers to better engage the community on a more personal level and make decisions without bias and help gain trust. He says it is now more important than ever after protests and riots over the summer in Chicago.
“It lead me on this way where community policing is the drive of what we do, everything else falls around it,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect life and property but we also have a responsibility of bringing the community on board.”
He said he was humbled when promoted to commander.
“But I also see it as an opportunity,” he said. “The first Hispanic in this position, bring the Hispanic into the fold and also bridge the gap between the Hispanic and African American communities – and all communities actually.”
In the mid-2000s, Novalez was wounded in the line of duty. But instead of quitting, he said the experience only furthered his resolve to keep serving in the Chicago police department.
“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I didn’t look back and I still think this is the greatest job in the world”