The nationwide calls for criminal justice reform are having little if any impact on the Democratic runoff race for El Paso’s next district attorney.

The two candidates, Yvonne Rosales and James Montoya, say they’ve been calling for more transparency from the district attorney’s office since announcing their campaigns. In recent interviews with El Paso Matters, they didn’t push any ideas to overhaul how policing and prosecution is handled in El Paso.

J.J. Martinez, the president of El Paso Young Democrats and a University of Texas at El Paso senior, helped organize a recent virtual forum for the DA candidates around criminal justice reform. He said the candidates didn’t advocate for demilitarization and defunding of police, positions many in his organization favor.

“It wasn’t a surprise that those candidates weren’t all the way there. And you can’t expect that these candidates are going to come out full force to advocate for some of the policies that our organization has been advocating for,” Martinez said.

Rosales and Montoya were the top two finishers in the four-candidate March Democratic primary. Early voting for the runoff starts Monday and continues through July 10; Election Day is July 14. 

There is no Republican candidate, so the winner will succeed Jaime Esparza, who is retiring after 24 years on the job. Esparza’s predecessor, Steve Simmons, held the job for 22 years, so the winner of this year’s election will be only the third person to serve as El Paso district attorney in half a century.

Yvonne Rosales

Rosales said the national protests that have rocked the country since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis haven’t caused her to change her campaign.

“It really has an impact on my platform because from the very get go, I’ve always been talking about creating a more transparent organization and creating the public integrity unit. So those have been cornerstones of my platform since day one,” said Rosales, who narrowly lost to Esparza in the 2016 Democratic runoff for district attorney and was the top vote-getter in this year’s primary.

Public integrity units generally are used to investigate allegations of government corruption.

Montoya also stressed transparency as a campaign theme.

“I will tell you from the very beginning, I think one of my platform positions has been increased transparency and accountability in dealing with cases involving public officials generally,” he said.

Systemic racism

A key claim for those calling for sweeping reforms of the U.S. criminal justice system is that it is plagued by systemic racism that disproportionately impacts Blacks and Latinos. Rosales and Montoya said systemic racism is present in the U.S. criminal justice system, but both said El Paso doesn’t have such a problem.

“We’re predominantly Hispanic culture here. And so, I don’t really feel that there’s been a whole lot of racism and disparity in treatment of the people that are being apprehended. At least I haven’t seen it,” Rosales said.

James Montoya

Montoya said El Paso values shape the local criminal justice system.

“I will tell you here in El Paso, our incarceration rate is half the national average, less than half of the statewide average,” he said. “People have asked me, do I think that El Paso contributes to over incarceration generally or mass incarceration? My answer is no. I think here in El Paso, we’re a law abiding community but in some ways, we’re also a very forgiving community.”

Police use of deadly force

Repeated rounds of public protests in recent years have been triggered by police use of deadly force, especially against Blacks. From 2005 to 2019, only 35 local police officers in the country were convicted of a crime following a fatal on-duty shooting. Only one El Paso officer has ever been indicted in a fatal on-duty shooting; he was later acquitted.

El Paso’s two district attorney candidates are proposing modest reforms in how police shootings are investigated.

“There used to be a DA investigator that would go out to every officer-involved shooting. That used to be the case. That stopped being the case,” Montoya said. El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen ended the practice after an officer was indicted in a 2011 off-duty shooting that left a man paralyzed, Esparza has said.

“I would like to work to get that back, because I think that is an essential component to a deadly force investigation,” Montoya said of allowing district attorney investigators at police shooting scenes.

El Paso Matters Voters Guide: Learn more about July 14 runoff candidates

Rosales said investigations into police use of deadly force should largely remain with the police.

“It should go through first through internal affairs. They have the disciplinary board that’s already in play. And we have citizens who are not law enforcement that are a part of that board,” she said. “So basically what we could do is expand the membership or we could include somebody from the criminal defense bar, we can include somebody from the city or the county that works with the H.R. department in order to review those investigations.”

Rosales said some high-profile cases may warrant outside investigation.

“I think that there may be instances where it may be necessary to have an independent agency come in and conduct that investigation so that the community feels safe, they don’t feel that there was any bias in the investigation,” she said.

Police union influence

Across the country, police unions have wielded considerable influence on public policy decisions. Their endorsements — and accompanying campaign contributions — are highly prized by many candidates. Police unions have resisted calls for reform in the wake of protests in recent years.

The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas is the state’s largest and most influential police union. The El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Association are members of CLEAT.

Although El Paso candidates trumpet endorsements from law-enforcement unions, the influence of those endorsements on voters is limited.

In 2017, three of the four El Paso City Council candidates endorsed by police unions were defeated. In 2016, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Officers Association endorsed Republican Tom Bucchino in the sheriff’s race; incumbent Democrat Richard Wiles won in a landslide. And in the March Democratic district attorney primary, the police unions endorsed their own lawyer, Karen Dykes, who won only 18 percent of the vote and finished a distant third behind Rosales and Montoya.

Both Rosales and Montoya said they support political involvement by the police unions. They vied for support from the police unions for the runoff, and the endorsement went to Montoya.

“I didn’t initially receive their support. But I’m grateful to have it now. And while I’m grateful for it, I’m not beholden to them,” Montoya said. “I’ve raised more from defense attorneys, from plaintiffs attorneys, including the plaintiffs attorneys who are suing the department for officer-involved shootings.

A view from the youth

El Paso Young Democrats, the group that organized the virtual forum with Rosales and Montoya to talk about criminal justice reform, is meeting on Tuesday to discuss making an endorsement in the race.

The group organized the forum after most of its board members participated in a May 31 protest at Memorial Park and El Paso police headquarters denouncing police violence against people of color and calling for reforms. The protest was mostly peaceful but ended with police opening fire with tear gas and projectiles on a group of protesters at the park.

Police said they were responding to a threatening situation; protesters said police attacked them without justification.

Martinez said the police action prompted his organization to look more deeply into criminal justice issues.

“We really saw something that I don’t think any of us had really ever seen up close in El Paso. You saw police using pretty violent tactics,” he said.

“You saw the problem was that there is a police force even here that is so prone to militarization and to violence,” Martinez said.

He rejects suggestions that El Paso is unaffected by systemic racism. “We are different, but we’re not immune. And I think that’s the problem that we have in our narratives around El Paso is we are not immune to these problems, even though we are a special community. We are still an American city, in Texas, and we still have problems, including when it comes to racial justice and policing.”

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.