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Activists say city plan to review El Paso police falls short of reform needs

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El Paso city leaders responded to nationwide concerns over policing with a resolution that “seeks to encourage the elimination of racial disparities and improve law enforcement interactions” and called for a review of use-of-force policies and racial profiling data.

Deputy City Manager Dionne Mack

Dionne Mack, deputy city manager of public safety, said the city is taking a deliberate, data-driven approach to reviewing the Police Department. 

“Oftentimes we hear people — particularly in the environment that we are in now — jump to a place where we want to talk about reform without actually recognizing where the department is,” she said.

Critics who have called for a dramatic overhaul of the El Paso Police Department said the city is falling well short of what is needed.

“That response is very weak and doesn’t focus on what is wrong with the El Paso Police Department,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights and a member of the Justicia for El Paso Coalition.

The latest policing debate in El Paso and across the country was triggered by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest in May. The incident sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for reform as well as the defunding of police departments.

The city’s plan

The city executive staff recently started working on what was introduced to the City Council as a comprehensive plan that does not mention an effort to reform the Police Department, but rather, seeks to encourage “the elimination of racial disparities and improve law enforcement interactions.”

The city’s approach aims to fulfill goals that were identified in an El Paso Strong resolution passed by the City Council in June. The move was in response to civil unrest sparked by protests held in El Paso in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The city’s plan includes a “multi-disciplinary team” consisting of staff from five city departments to tackle goals that were in the resolution. Those include the Police Department’s executive team and academy personnel, staff from the Office Management and Budget, International Bridges, Capital Improvement Department, Community and Human Development, Purchasing and Strategic Sourcing, Planning and Inspections, City Attorney’s Office, Human Resources and the City Manager’s Office.

Justicia for El Paso, a coalition of community groups and members including the BNHR, has been conducting weekly protests since the summer. The group says the city’s initiative is cosmetic at best.

“That is a concern to me because they are not including anybody else. They are just moving people from the city’s departments,” Garcia said. “I don’t believe that many of them are educated or even informed about these issues of police reform.”

Activists stand in the shade of their signs as they demonstrate for police reform on Oct. 13 at El Paso police headquarters. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The city’s effort also calls for an independent study by a third party to review the department’s use of force and racial profiling reports, statistics, policies and practices to make recommendations on implementing best practices in policing.

There will also be community town halls scheduled as part of the effort. Mack said the city will be reviewing the information and data to know where they need to be focusing their efforts and intentions.

Regarding eliminating racial disparities, Mack said the city has to evaluate the data and best practices in other police departments to understand where EPPD stands before determining what, if any, changes need to be implemented.

Mack said the Chicago-based  security risk management firm Hillard Heintze will analyze the use of force data and the racial profiling analysis will be done by Justice Research Consultants LLC. That North Texas company has been providing profiling data to El Paso for years, but its reports have usually received only cursory attention from City Council.

An El Paso Matters analysis of EPPD data found that while the department’s traffic stop figures do not necessarily show systematic racial profiling, another set of data — consent searches — performed by officers after a traffic stop is initiated disproportionately occur with African- Americans.

Police officers can search vehicles under multiple circumstances if they believe there is a probable cause such as seeing a weapon, smelling marijuana, if a vehicle is impounded or if the officer obtains a search warrant among other reasons. In other instances, the El Paso Matters analysis found that if an officer has so much as a “hunch” or a suspicion that cannot be put into words, they can ask for the driver’s consent to search a vehicle.

An Army vet’s story

Michael Cuviello, an Army veteran and journalism student at the University of Texas at El Paso, was recently pulled over by El Paso police for an alleged speeding violation on the day early voting kicked off.

Michael Cuviello

Cuviello was in between shooting photos at early voting sites for a class assignment when he was pulled over. He said he and his cousin, who is African-American, joked that the police might think it was suspicious that the pair were together.

“I got pulled over a lot when I was in Florida just because I lived in a Black neighborhood. You know a Black person and white person together, so they are like … they ought to have drugs, but that really even wasn’t on my mind. I was just making a joke when we got pulled and the police came up,” Cuviello said.

He said he was not worried because he and his cousin were not doing anything wrong and have clean records. He said he was just hoping to avoid a speeding ticket because of the associated costs.

But Cuviello said what should have been a relatively straight-forward encounter where a driver is either given a warning or a citation became a lengthy back-and-forth with the officers.

The two officers ultimately asked both Cuviello and his cousin to get out of the vehicle and asked for consent to search the car because they claimed Cuviello “seemed nervous.”

“They basically use these catch phrases like ‘he was nervous’ to allow them to work with impunity,” Cuviello said. “I’ve been brought back to reality that there definitely needs to be changes.”

Cuviello refused the consent search and asked the officers to call a supervisor to the scene. The officers asked to search him. Cuviello also refused, but voluntarily emptied his pockets.

After about 10 minutes passed, Cuviello started requesting a supervisor be brought to the scene. He said the officers handcuffed him for “touching his pockets.”

Not long after and following repeated requests for a supervisor, Cuviello said he was placed in the back of the police squad car.

Cuviello said the whole encounter took about an hour and a half, which included a K-9 unit being called by the officers. He and his cousin were eventually released and Cuviello was given a speeding ticket.

He said he has no doubt in his mind that the reason the situation unfolded as it did was because he is White and his cousin is African-American.

Critics want more sweeping reforms

Justicia for El Paso has four key areas where they want the city to make changes to reform the department, one of which is retraining on implicit bias and anti-racism.

They also want an end to the city paying for defending police officers who have killed El Pasoans, establishing an independent disciplinary review commission, shifting to a more community-based policing model that includes reducing funding for the department, and removing Greg Allen as chief of police.

Police Chief Greg Allen

Garcia said Allen, chief since 2008, has created a culture of impunity in the department.

Garcia said one of the reasons Allen should be removed stems from a March ruling by U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez that allows a lawsuit against the city to go to trial. The case involves a 2015 police shooting death of an El Paso man in a mental health crisis, which Martinez said may be traced to poor training and discipline standards set by Allen.

“The evidence put forth suggests that Chief Allen is deeply loyal to his officers, and believes that he has an obligation to support them when they are accused of wrongdoing. Simultaneously, Chief Allen is responsible for investigating any accusations and disciplining his officers when they have in fact done wrong. It is possible that where Chief Allen succeeds in supporting his officers, he fails in disciplining them,” the ruling states.

The lawsuit was filed by the family of 22-year-old Erik Salas-Sanchez who was fatally shot in April 2015 by El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez.

“We don’t hate police, but there is a systemic problem in our city and that systemic problem starts at the head,” said task force co-chair Pastor Michael Grady of the Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship.

The task force also demands that the city stop defending police officers who have killed El Pasoans, and “instead focus its resources and efforts to bring justice to the families of those  who have suffered death and abuse by the EPPD.”

An El Paso Matters analysis of city billing records shows El Paso taxpayers have paid at least $1.7 million since 2016 to defend police officers and the city in four lawsuits stemming from the use of deadly force against people in mental health crises.

At a July protest outside City Hall, Justicia for El Paso, members held crosses with the names of people who were killed by police in El Paso and the United States. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The task force calls for the city to create an independent accountability review commission with investigative, subpoena and disciplinary powers. Among other criteria, the commission would establish a civilian-controlled process to fairly investigate and make determinations regarding complaints of misconduct involving officers.

Garcia said the independent review commission is necessary because trust in the department’s disciplinary process has been eroded.

For the city to transform the EPPD into a community-centered policing model, the task force is asking that the city shift funding from the police budget to other programs.

While some Texas cities have debated reducing police budgets, the El Paso City Council recently approved a $6.6 million increase to the police department for a total of $277 million, while other departments saw significant reductions amid the financial strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

City officials have said increases to the El Paso Police Department were attributed to pay raises through collective bargaining agreements, as well as one police academy for the next fiscal year.

Efforts of Texas municipalities to reduce police funding have received backlash from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has threatened to retaliate by capping cities’ property taxes among other possible legislative actions.

Cover photo: A few dozen people attended a weekly protest Oct. 13 at El Paso police headquarters to demand police reform. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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