For months, the El Paso Police Department has been silent about allegations of wide-ranging gender discrimination and sexual harassment within its ranks. 

It declined an April 5 request from El Paso Matters to interview interim Chief Peter Pacillas on this subject, citing “ongoing investigations regarding this topic” that it did not identify. EPPD did not respond to a follow-up interview request that included a detailed list of allegations and written questions, submitted May 11. 

And after El Paso Matters published a two-part investigative series last week describing a sexist Police Department culture where those who complain can face retaliation, the department again stayed silent and issued no public response. 

On June 7, police leadership finally weighed in on these issues internally, through a department-wide email obtained by a civilian EPPD employee and reviewed by El Paso Matters. 

Interim Police Chief Pete Pacillas updates the investigation of the Cielo Vista Mall shooting on Thursday, Feb. 16. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

“All EPPD personnel have the fundamental right to a workplace free from discrimination, intimidation, retaliation, and harassment from their peers, co-workers, and supervisory personnel,” Pacillas wrote. “We need to understand and apply the ‘Golden Rule’ and continue to practice the finest traditions of the El Paso Police Department of respect for the dignity of others, whether dealing with the public or our co-workers.”

Publicly, however, the police department has remained silent. Neither EPPD nor the city responded to El Paso Matters’ request for comment on the interim chief’s email or questions about what prompted it. 

Pacillas’ email reminded EPPD staff of the existing policies on discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. “To be very clear, discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation violate Federal and State law and the City of El Paso and El Paso Police Department policy! There is a zero-tolerance policy, and supervisory personnel must & will act immediately per the law and policy.” 

The email ended: “Employees who participate in any kind of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or intimidation of another employee or a member of the public will be subject to disciplinary action, which may include termination.”

El Paso Matters’ investigation found evidence that in practice, the police department has taken far from a zero tolerance stance on sexual harassment. In one case, an officer was disciplined for sexual harassment and other violations in May 2021 – which also involved the officer failing to report knowledge of a possible sex crime committed against a female EPPD detective, according to EPPD records obtained through public information requests. He is now up for promotion to sergeant. 

Reactions to email

Some current and former EPPD staff were skeptical of Pacillas’ message. 

“It’s just a blanket email for liability purposes,” said retired Sgt. Rosalynn Carrasco. “In my 20 years on the department, I’ve never seen one email addressing sexual harassment like that.” 

“It’s good to see it come out, but it’s also irritating,” said Gabriela Gonzalez, a former EPPD civilian employee who quit the department this February. “In police terms, I see it as a CYA – cover your ass…. This is nothing but a measure to prevent the department from getting burnt.”

Gonzalez left her job as an EPPD court liaison earlier this year because of what she describes as a hostile work environment – including retaliation both for lodging a complaint against a male supervisor and for speaking in support of a female co-worker’s hostile work environment case, she said. Gonzalez said she also attempted to file a sexual harassment claim that investigators “watered down” to defamation of character. 

El Paso Matters has been unable to review Gonzalez’s case records because the city has ignored an order from the Texas Attorney General to release them.  

Gonzalez also felt Pacillas’ message should have gone farther. ‘There was no apology, there was no ‘we feel sorry for what our employees are going through,’” she added. “They’re not showing any empathy.”

“(T)he chief’s office could have really sent out a good email of substance and show compassion, but they toss out this as a form of ‘we’ve done something,’” wrote a male officer who’s been at EPPD for more than a decade, who asked not to be identified to protect his job. He called Pacillas’ message a “band aid effect of too little too late.”  

Retired Sgt. Linda Hanner said the department should have taken more responsibility. She described the message she would have wanted to see: “You could say, ‘Look, we all in some way or manner have participated in this – whether we’ve allowed it to happen in front of us or whether we’re the ones that did it. Obviously, this is an area where we have failed. So I’m putting this email out just to let you know that from this point on, there’s there’s going to be a change… and we’re going to be abiding by our own policy.’”

What would real change look like? 

None saw in the interim chief’s message any sign of departmental change. 

Real change, for Hanner, would mean independent oversight of the police department – where City Council picks who sits on the disciplinary boards that hear cases of alleged officer misconduct, she said. “The problem is that there’s no oversight for the police department. The police department picks the civilians and the police officers to serve on the disciplinary board. So they ultimately have control over the discipline.” 

For Gonzalez, real change would mean involving an outside agency to investigate misconduct allegations. It also would mean changing the statute of limitations around sexual harassment reporting timelines – especially for cases like hers, where she learned of harassing comments about her long after the reporting deadline had passed, she said. 

For Carrasco, that change would start at the very top, beginning with the chief of police. The city has started a search to replace longtime Police Chief Greg Allen, who died in January.  “In a nutshell: the city needs to hire a chief that is truly progressive, who doesn’t see the ‘ideal’ officer as a white male heterosexual officer,” she said. 

“It all falls on the leader,” she added. “The officers are going to follow the leader. That’s what’s ingrained in us, in the chain of command. That’s the only thing that’s going to cause real change.”

Victoria Rossi is a women and gender issues reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal...