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El Paso leaders debate police oversight amid protests

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El Paso City Council members engaged in a heated debate Monday over police reform and the use of force by police officers at a May 31 protest.

Some council members and El Paso residents suggested implementing greater civilian oversight of the Police Department, while others rejected allegations of shortcomings among law enforcement and defended police actions at the May 31 protest. The meeting came as cities across the country were re-examining police budgets and tactics in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and police responses to the protests that followed.

City Representative Sam Morgan, the lone African-American on City Council, gave an impassioned speech about racism, saying, “It’s an American problem, it’s an El Paso problem, and we need to wake up.” 

During the El Paso City Council meeting, community members called in to denounce what they said was the unnecessary use of force by police during the May 31 protest, including callers who had been shot by beanbag rounds, and a person who had been arrested during protests for “blocking a roadway.” 

When a caller said that Police Chief Greg Allen had called Black Lives Matter a hate group, the caller was cut off by city staff that labeled the factual statement a personal attack. 

El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen

City Representative Cassandra Hernandez asked Allen whether he felt police could improve their crowd-control tactics. 

“Not in this instance; the duty of police is to protect life and property,” Allen responded. “The problem with this situation is you have a mixture of both (peaceful and non-peaceful protesters) included together, and that makes it difficult to segregate the people out of the crowd who are rabble-rousers and create more problems than are allowed.” 

Assistant Police Chief Peter Pasillas also justified use of riot gear by officers at the protest, saying that officers wearing body armor is a way to minimize the likelihood of lethal force, because protective gear lessens the likelihood of injury to officers. Pasillas said Texas penal code elevates an incident to allow use of lethal force if an officer receives a “serious injury.” 

City Council discussion of the need for police reform became increasingly testy at times, with multiple council members speaking over one another, and Mayor Dee Margo intervening at one point to encourage City Representative Alexsandra Annello and City Manager Tommy Gonzalez to continue their discussion privately. 

Later,  Annello interrupted the meeting moderator, asking her to allow a caller to finish a comment about racism and policing, when the moderator had told the caller that the comment was not relevant to the agenda item. 

Annello apologized to El Pasoans who feel they aren’t being heard by local leaders, and challenged Gonzalez to “come back with input from the community and tangible plans to move forward.” 

City Representative Henry Rivera, a retired police officer, suggested increasing body cameras for El Paso police, something which would necessitate increased police budget. “I want the protesters to feel comfortable where they can protest in peace and the officers are not there to stop them,” he said.

Other callers and protesters discussed the need for independent oversight of local police.

Earlier in the day, protesters gathered outside El Paso City Hall to decry police brutality and call on leaders to take action.

Erik Salas-Sanchez was shot to death by an El Paso police officer in 2015 in his mother’s apartment. (Salas-Sanchez family photo)

“We want justice for George Floyd, but also for Erik Salas-Sanchez (an El Paso man shot to death by a police officer in 2015). That brutality against our community must stop,” said protest organizer Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network of Human Rights. “We want Police Chief Greg Allen to be held accountable by the city. Too many abuses, too many aggressions (have taken place) already. Something must happen to make him accountable,” Garcia said. 

The police officer who shot and killed Salas-Sanchez, Mando Kenneth Gomez, was acquitted last year of a manslaughter charge. A civil suit by Salas-Sanchez’s family against Officer Gomez, Police Chief Allen, and the city of El Paso is scheduled to go to trial later this year.

Video by Corrie Boudreaux

Ana Reza, a chaplain and El Paso native who participated in Monday’s protest, pointed to police use of tear gas and beanbag rounds at the May 31 protest as evidence of the urgent need for police reform. 

“That was horrible that they went to that level against our people — they were wearing riot gear. Come on, do they really need that to protect themselves from water bottles? It was very unnecessary and it was towards our youth, showing their power so they can keep them under control. And now with COVID-19, they shouldn’t have done that,” Reza said.

Tear gas has been designated as a chemical weapon and banned in warfare in many international treaties, including the Geneva Convention.

Protester Mika Cohen Jones said the killing of Salas-Sanchez indicates systemic problems among local law enforcement. 

“It was an issue of mental health, and so many of these cases that end fatally are cases that need to be dealt with in different ways — at community levels through social services,” she said. “Police have expanded and expanded their role, and they’re playing a role in our communities that (is) frankly detrimental. I think the time is right now, not just here in El Paso, but nationwide to address those systemic issues, and hold cities, states, our country accountable.” 

City Manager Gonzalez said that, by and large, El Paso is doing well at combating racism and maintaining accountability among law enforcement. “We don’t have the types of issues that other communities have. No community is perfect. We have spent an enormous amount of money on the training of our Police Department,” he said. 

Gonzalez said he plans to “circle back” to city representatives about issues they raised. Representative Peter Svarzbein encouraged Gonzalez to investigate what an independent advisory committee could look like for El Paso.

Also on Monday, Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a comprehensive measure by House Democrats to reform policing in response to the death of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests. 

“The feelings of pain and anger rippling across our nation are justified and overwhelming and we need action from our leaders to address police brutality. In the absence of leadership from the White House, Democrats in Congress will act,” Escobar said. 

Cover photo: Protesters demand justice for Erik Salas-Sánchez, killed by an El Paso police officer in 2015, while an onlooker observes from inside City Hall on Monday, June 8. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. She has a new album coming out on Sister Polygon Records in fall 2020, and is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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