November 30, 2023

The next El Paso police chief will take charge of a department that has helped the city to be ranked among the safest in the nation – but also one that is embroiled in controversy surrounding the arrests of several of its own officers on an array of charges.

The public will have an opportunity to talk with the four chief of police finalists and ask them how they plan to lead the department and address these challenges on Wednesday, when the city will host a meet-and-greet with the remaining candidates.

The event is at 6 p.m. at the El Paso Museum of Art, 1 Arts Festival Plaza in Downtown. The city announced the four finalists on Aug. 25, which included three current and former high-ranking officials within EPPD.

The finalists are Peter Pacillas, the current interim EPPD police chief; Victor Zarur, who currently serves as interim executive assistant chief of operations in EPPD’s Office of Performance and Development; former El Paso police officer David Ransom, who currently teaches criminal justice courses at Bay State College in Boston and serves as chief of police at the Berklee School of Music in Boston; and Steve Dye, who recently retired as the Grand Prairie city manager and previously served as that city’s police chief.

Requests to city officials by El Paso Matters for interviews to talk about the details of the hiring process, the expectations for the new chief and the allegations by some community members that there was a lack of public input were declined. City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said staff was not commenting “to protect the integrity of the selection process.”

The new chief will be tasked with developing the department’s strategic planning, key policy decisions and operational improvement recommendations, as well as hiring and disciplining officers.

They will oversee a department of more than 1,130 sworn officers and about 270 civilian personnel, as well as a $192 million annual budget – which has grown by at least 27% in the last five years and makes up the largest share of the city’s budget.

The police chief’s salary may range from $121,500 to $239,000 a year, according to the job description advertised by Strategic Government Resources. The recruiting firm was hired by the city to find candidates for the position.

Under the City Charter, the chief of police is appointed by the city manager – currently Cary Westin, who was appointed interim city manager after the City Council fired Tommy Gonzalez. The City Council has no vote on who the city manager hires, but voted to move forward with the police chief search under Westin.

The four police chief finalists will participate in a meet-and-greet with the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the El Paso Museum of Art.

The four police chief finalists will participate in a meet-and-greet with the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the El Paso Museum of Art.

The position recruitment brochure used to attract candidates states that the police chief must be the most visible police officer in the community.

“The ideal candidate will be a personable, caring, and approachable leader who is highly visible both within the Department and the community,” the brochure states.

The brochure also says the new chief must be able to bring about change within the department.

“The ideal candidate will be someone experienced with implementing best practices and garnering support for positive organizational change. … They will have an inclusive management style, building a team environment that motivates both sworn and non-sworn personnel, and a demonstrated record of building genuine trust relationships throughout a diverse community. The ideal candidate will be an active listener who ensures people are heard and understood.”

The selected candidate will replace Greg Allen, who died in January after serving as chief for about 15 years.

More: Man wounded in El Paso police shooting in the Glen Cove area of the East Side

Investing in EPPD, expanding services

For more than 20 years, El Paso has consistently ranked among the safest cities with populations of more than 500,000 based on the FBI standardized crime reporting.

In 2018, the Police Department initiated a Crisis Intervention Team, which allows mental health specialists from Emergence Health Network to respond to calls alongside police officers in hopes of helping a person who might be having a mental health crisis. El Paso was among the last major cities in Texas to adopt such a program.

The Police Department also put a new spin on the Neighborhood Crime Watch program in 2019 by creating a Volunteers In Patrol Service Program. The program provides volunteers training on how to report abandoned vehicles, code violations, graffiti and other neighborhood issues. The first class of 12 volunteers graduated in November 2021.

El Paso voters have consistently supported the Police Department and other first responders at the polls, approving more than $400 million in public safety bonds in 2019. More than $220 million of that will be allocated to the Police Department, including for the construction of two regional command centers, a new training academy, new headquarters and fleet replacement.

A police vehicle is parked outside of the EPPD headquarters.

A police vehicle is parked outside of the EPPD headquarters.

In May, voters approved amending the City Charter to lift the cap on the amount taxpayers contribute to the police pension fund – leaving the decision to the City Council. A month earlier, the council approved an agreement with the police union that provides across-the-board pay raises of between 13% and 17%, as well as annual cost-of-living increases.

City Rep. Henry Rivera, who is a retired police officer, said that while he is not happy with the recent arrests of several officers, he supports the police department’s overall work.

“El Paso is one of the safest cities as a result of the contributions made by the good men and women that serve in our law enforcement community,” he said. “The majority of our police force is made up of homegrown men and women that serve the department and know their community.”

More: Operation Safe Streets 2023 nets more than 200 arrests, surrenders in El Paso County

Standards of conduct

Aside from the standard duties, SGR’s recruitment brochure states that the selected candidate would also be responsible for reviewing “results of investigations concerning alleged misconduct and impose and defend appeals of disciplinary action” as well as enforcing “personnel rules and regulations, work behavior, and standards of conduct firmly and impartially.”

Over the past year, El Paso Police Department officers have been arrested for allegedly making sex tapes of fellow female officers and attempting to film female co-workers in the locker room, as well as on allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault. Most recently, two police supervisors were charged with official oppression in connection to sexual harassment allegations against women officers.

The city also recently settled two deadly force lawsuits against individuals suffering mental health crises. Both lawsuits alleged – in part – that the Police Department, under Allen’s leadership, poorly trained its officers on how to respond to mental health cases.

A retired police sergeant who has openly criticized the El Paso Police Department’s leadership – particularly about issues related to sexual harassment toward women on the force – said she’s concerned the majority of finalists come from within the department.

“Three out of the four EPPD police chief finalists were brought up and thrived in a police era that promoted the belief that male officers were superior to female officers,” said Sgt. Rosalynn Carrasco, who retired from the department after 20 years last year.

Carrasco was among the women who spoke about their experiences on the force to El Paso Matters for its investigative series on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within EPPD.

Carrasco said she was disappointed the finalists won’t participate in a more structured panel session with the public where everyone in attendance could ask questions and hear responses.

“I think it’s important that they are asked these challenging questions in a public format,” she said.

More: Man shot by police is taken to hospital in critical condition after domestic disturbance

Transparency in selection

The meet-and-greet event appears to be the only opportunity for the public to meet the finalists, which some community organizations say is not enough to allow residents to vet them properly.

Some groups also expressed concern that there wasn’t more public involvement in selecting the finalists beyond an initial meeting with the recruiting firm.

The city, however, disputes that there was a lack of public input, telling El Paso Matters that it held more than 20 “feedback sessions” between area groups and the recruiting firm prior to the selection of the finalists. The sessions were meant to identify the “key characteristics” the community is seeking in the new police chief, the city said in a statement.

Groups that participated included local, federal and state law enforcement agencies, Fort Bliss leadership, the county judge, business and education leaders, area nonprofits, neighborhood groups and social services groups such as Annunciation House and Emergence Health Network. The city received 786 responses to the online community survey, officials said in the statement.

The city formed an internal Police Chief Search Committee, led by Mario D’Agostino, the deputy city manager for public safety, and the finalists were chosen from among 25 applicants from 11 states. City officials did not identify the members of the search committee.

“We don’t know how they came about to obtain these four finalists and that’s very disheartening,” said Samantha Singleton, who is the coordinator for the Border Network for Human Rights’ police accountability task force.

At Tuesday’s El Paso City Council meeting, BNHR plans to deliver a letter to the council signed by 15 community groups asking the city to postpone any actions or votes on the police chief until some community organizations get to ask the candidates questions aside from Wednesday’s meet-and-greet.

“No senior law enforcement leadership should be considered without input from those whom policing will impact,” states the letter obtained by El Paso Matters. “As our Nation is having a national conversation around ‘common sense’ police reform, we seek inclusion of civil, social, academic, and faith-based stakeholders who will represent the diversity of our city.”

Pastor Michael Grady of the Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship, who met with the consultants in May, said by not having more community involvement, it seems the city has already made up its mind.

“I just think it’s about transparency and it’s also about giving the citizens of El Paso some sense that they are important in the grand scheme of policing, community policing, what’s happening with the border, and the resources that are going to take that into account,” Grady said.

Other community leaders said it is up to elected officials to provide opportunities to meet with the finalists.

“We elected our City Council reps in order for them to be ones helping the community to make the decision,” said Fabiola Campos Lopez, chair of the El Paso Neighborhood Coalition, who met with the consulting firm in May. “I think the trust is on the city reps and the mayor at the end of the day.”

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: The public will be able to talk with the four chief of police finalists

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