Lt. John Surface, one of the two El Paso police supervisors charged with official oppression this week, is alleged to have made unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors from two women subordinates for several years, complaint affidavits show.
The documents also show that Sgt. Adan Chavez, who worked under Surface, knew of the sexual harassment against one of the women, failed to prevent it and perpetuated it – even indicating that she could face disciplinary action if she didn’t comply, documents show.
Surface, 43, and Chavez, 44, were booked and released at the El Paso county jail on Wednesday afternoon. The two were relieved of duty and placed on paid administrative leave; Chavez was relieved on Wednesday and Surface, who faces two official oppression charges, “a few weeks ago,” Interim Police Chief Peter Pacillas said during a press conference on Thursday.
Official oppression, in this case stemming from the alleged sexual harassment against the two women officers, is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine.
The complaint affidavits detail the kind of ongoing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct against women officers that El Paso Matters investigated in a two-part series in June – about the same time that the complaints against Surface and Chavez were made.
The two arrests are among the latest in a string of such cases involving El Paso police officers – including two in July that involved domestic violence and sexual assault and one in December 2022 where an officer was accused of attempted visual recording in an EPPD women’s locker room.
Surface and Victim 2
One complaint affidavit states that from March 2016 to July 2022, Surface “intentionally subjected Victim 2 to sexual harassment by unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
The nine-page document details numerous encounters between Surface and the woman identified as Victim 2, citing several instances of him sending her flirty texts, asking her to text him nude photographs of herself and grabbing her forcefully. The woman admits to sending Surface a nude picture of herself, which he later showed to Chavez, the affidavit said.
The woman told investigators that she never had “intimate relations” with Surface, even though he kept asking her to do so.
When the woman became pregnant, Surface continued texting her sexually explicit messages – in at least one instance telling her she couldn’t now get pregnant if they hooked up. At one point, Surface showed up to her house uninvited and went into her bedroom through the backyard, the affidavit alleged.
When the woman wanted to join the Criminalistics Unit, which Surface supervised, he invited her to meet him to talk about the interview questions for the position. Surface told her he had all the questions the interview board was going to ask – and told her she would have to “work for it” if she wanted the questions in advance. She said that Surface gave her two of the questions.
On another occasion, the woman mentioned being unhappy in her shift and Surface told the woman that he could move her to a shift Chavez supervised if she showed him her breasts. She agreed and lifted her shirt, the affidavit states, and Surface grabbed her breasts and put his mouth on them before she put her shirt down. She was transferred to Chavez’s shift.
In July of 2022, Surface invited the woman to a work-related trip but in “exchange” would have to let him touch her breasts and buttocks. She declined.
The woman on several occasions told Surface she did not want to have sexual relations with him and just wanted to be friends or remain strictly professional. She told him to stop on several occasions when he tried to kiss and hug her, the affidavit states.
“Victim 2 states she felt constant pressure and stress with the defendant since she first met him and felt like she had to send him naked pictures of herself and it was made very obvious that the defendant would make her time at work difficult if she did not,” the affidavit states.
The woman provided investigators several text messages between her and Surface throughout the years, the affidavit states.
Surface and Victim 1
In a separate five-page complaint affidavit, another woman alleges similar behaviors from Surface toward her from January 2018 to May 2023. Identified as Victim 1, the woman stated that Surface would have “inappropriate face to face sexual conversations with her,” repeatedly asked her to his apartment and pressured her for sex. She never did, the affidavit states.
On one occasion, when Surface found out the woman had worked a second job she wasn’t allowed to, he asked her what he would get in exchange for covering it up for her, the affidavit states. The woman said she told Surface to write her up and not to cover it up. She wasn’t disciplined for the incident, according to the affidavit.
The woman provided investigators with text messages where Surface asks her to “exchange sexual pictures with him and to do sexual favors for him,” documents show. He also tells her to “step up her sexual involvement with him,” mentioning what he could do as a unit supervisor.
When the woman wanted to take the sergeant’s exam, Surface said she should let him know how he could help her.
“Because her intent was to show whatever material the defendant provided to her to Internal Affairs,” the affidavit states, the woman replied that he could give her the test answers. The woman told investigators that Surface replied in a text that he wanted “slight touching, some flirting, sexual favors, office romance, and he wanted a sexual relationship with her,” in exchange for the questions, the document shows.
The woman via text asked Surface if he was setting her up, and he sent her a picture of his penis, the affidavit states. Surface asked for a photo of the woman in her underwear, to which she replied, “kiss my ass.”
Surface told her he was not going to give her the answers to the sergeant’s exam, and asked her to delete their text messages, the affidavit states.
Chavez and Victim 1
In a five-page affidavit outlining allegations against Chavez – the sergeant who worked under Lt. Surface –Victim 1 stated that she sent Chavez a text message to update him on the lieutenant’s behavior toward her.
She told Chavez that “her morals were safe” and that she would never send Surface nude pictures of herself or have sexual relations with him. In response, the affidavit states, Chavez said Surface would give her anything she wanted – including his position as sergeant. The woman replied that Surface had always had a crush on her, and Chavez replied that Surface had “a serious itch for her.”
Text messages provided to investigators by the woman indicated Chavez had knowledge of Surface’s “sexual harassment of the victim 1, and failed to take action to prevent the sexual harassment from occurring,” the affidavit states.
The document continues, “The defendant also perpetuated the sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances by the co-defendant (Surface) and indicated that if she did not comply with the co-defendant’s sexual advances and requests for sexual favors, she would face disciplinary action.”
‘We take that seriously’
During Thursday’s press conference, Pacillas didn’t comment on the specific cases, instead addressing the public about the department’s obligations.
“I’d like to emphasize to the public that over 1,100 sworn personnel and over 270 civilian personnel come to work every single day to serve the community and keep this community safe. They’re doing some great things out there,” Pacillas said during the press conference at police headquarters.
The women who filed the complaint came forward to the department in June – about the time El Paso Matters published a two-part investigative series about what many describe as a hostile and sexist culture toward women. The series also detailed how those who complain often face retaliation and how the department is doing very little about it.
Asked what EPPD is doing about the sexual harassment and hostile work environment that several women officers have said pervades the department, Pacillas said that it’s important for victims in and out of the department to come forward – adding only that the recent arrests “demonstrate that the department takes these allegations seriously” because an investigation was initiated as soon as the conduct was reported.
Pressed about what the department is doing to prevent sexual harassment and other misconduct, Pacillas said EPPD has annual training and that employees are reminded about the city policies prohibiting such behavior. He also said that there’s a course in the police academy “we’re working on now,” but didn’t provide details or further comment.
It was unclear whether Pacillas was referring to a “Women in Policing” course that city officials pointed to as an example of the department’s efforts to support women officers. That course had been in development since 2018 but has not come to fruition.
City and police leaders for months declined to comment on the allegations women officers made to El Paso Matters about a toxic environment at the Police Department. Instead, about a week after the stories published in June, Pacillas issued a department-wide email that reminded staff about its policies on discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation – and that the department has a zero-tolerance policy on such matters.
Two former EPPD sergeants who spoke to El Paso Matters about their experiences as women on the force for the series expressed sympathy Thursday for the “brave women” who spoke out against Surface and Chavez.
But they also expressed skepticism about Pacillas’ claims that the department takes these types of allegations seriously.
“I hope it’s true and not just a last resort response the department had to begrudgingly make to keep up appearances in lieu of the upcoming chief selection,” said Sgt. Rosalynn Carrasco, who retired from EPPD last summer after 20 years on the force.
She referred to the city’s search for a police chief to replace the late Greg Allen, who died earlier this year. Pacillas is among four finalists for the job.
“I hope these women’s peers and supervisors support them rather than alienating them or blacklisting them,” Carrasco said, adding that many women in the department don’t report sexual harassment because they’re afraid of retaliation.
Former EPPD Sgt. Linda Hanner, who also retired from the force after 20 years, expressed similar concerns.
“He didn’t take accountability for the issues within the department he wants to be in charge of,” Hanner said about Pacillas’ comments during the press conference. She added that Pacillas has been in a leadership position in for years and could have said more to address the issue.
Hanner said she also regretted that not every case gets the same investigative attention in a timely manner as this one appears to have received.
“The difference in my opinion is because (Pacillas) is applying to be the chief and I think that’s the motivation he’s using to go after these two people,” she said.
“That’s not the right reason to do this – but I’m glad for these victims that they’re taking this one seriously,” Hanner said, adding that she hopes the victims are not vilified for their actions. “I commend the women for coming forward and they need to be ready for the backlash that, unfortunately, will happen.”
At his press conference, Pacillas said the investigation of Surface and Chavez was handled as any other investigation would be.
“The El Paso Police Department’s obligation to investigate crimes and protect victims. We take that seriously, whether it’s internally or externally,” he said.