Thousands of mourners bid farewell Wednesday to Houston police Sgt. Steve A. Perez, praising as a “hero” the dedicated officer who died in the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey while trying to help others struggling in the storm.
Honor guards, a riderless horse, a helicopter fly-over and a last radio call marked the traditional law enforcement service for the veteran officer in the city’s first public expression of grief since the catastrophic storm hit Aug. 26.
“His legacy is the legacy of what Texas law enforcement is all about,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined other dignitaries from across the region in speaking at the funeral. “He is a true Texas hero. He served God until the very last day. … He is an example for all Americans and to people all across the globe.”
Perez, 60, drove into high water near Beltway 8 and the Hardy Toll Road while trying to get to work early in the morning of Aug. 27, after driving for hours trying to get into downtown Houston at the height of the rains that inundated the city. His body was found days later.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said Perez’s death was symbolic of all the sacrifices Houston made as it bore the brunt of the storm.
“When he drove into the water that morning, God was there to catch him,” Acevedo said. “He served as an absolute testament of the excellence of the men and women in blue.”
He made a pledge to Perez’s widow, Cheryl, and their children, Maverick and Sabrina.
“We’re here with you,” he said. “We’re here for you, and you’ll never be alone, I promise.”
The son of a firefighter, Perez was born in Los Angeles and grew up in San Antonio. He served in the U.S. Army and spent 34 years working as a Houston police officer, working in the juvenile and northwest divisions before being promoted to sergeant in 1992.
He died days short of his 61st birthday.
“He ran his race,” Mayor Sylvester Turner told the standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,700 mourners at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on St. Joseph’s Parkway in downtown Houston. “He was faithful and he finished his course.”
Maverick Perez described his father as a man with an impeccable work ethic and a deep faith.
He and his sister bragged to their friends about their dad’s job as a policeman. But as they got older, they became more aware of the dangers of the profession, he said.
“We lived every day with fear, him leaving work and never returning,” Perez said. “We knew our father was doing something big. He had a calling, the calling to protect and serve the great City of Houston.”
Among the mourners was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Houston City Council members and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Members of the Thin Blue Motorcycle Club showed up to honor the fallen officer, as did officials with the Texas Municipal Police Association.
Outside the church, two fire trucks made an archway with their ladders extended, as an American flag waved and strains of somber music played from speakers.
As they so often do when a comrade dies in the line of duty, officers came from across the country, from as far away as California, New York, Detroit, from Mobile, San Antonio and Dallas, to show support.
“We are just thinking about his family,” said Cedar Park Police Officer Rodney Wilk, one of four officers from the North Texas police department who had traveled to Houston for the funeral.
Perez’s death was the sacrifice that can come with serving in law enforcement, Wilk said, calling the sergeant’s death a “terrible tragedy.”
“He easily could’ve stayed home that night,” he said. “But he chose to go out to take care of his subordinates and the citizens of Houston.”
A long line of officers filed into the church sanctuary just after 9 a.m.
“It’s just hard to believe,” one officer said.
After the service, mourners filed out onto the closed street, surrounding Perez’s family, who sat in chairs in the middle of St. Joseph’s Parkway facing the sergeant’s flag-draped coffin.
The mayor presented Cheryl Perez a flag of the city. Acevedo presented her with the American flag that had covered her husband’s coffin. Abbott presented a Texas flag, drawing Perez’s wife and daughter each into an emotional embrace.
Across the street from the Co-Cathedral, a line of onlookers watched.
Angela DeCoo, 47, had driven in from Spring Branch to pay her respects.
“This family is forever changed by the flood,” she said. “It’s taken away so much from everybody.”
At 11:46 a.m., a flight of helicopters peeled across a cloud-cluttered sky, one peeling north and away. A minute later, three cracks of gunfire ripped across the landscape. Buglers played Taps and a color guard retired the colors.
The pallbearers lined up to take Perez’s coffin away to a private burial.