Although his hobby is woodworking, recently appointed El Paso Police Chief Peter Pacillas is spending more time carving out his leadership path and improving the police department’s transparency in the community despite skepticism that there will be notable change.
As a woodworker, Pacillas admits his skills are rudimentary. His favorite project was a coffee table he made for one of his daughters, which is still in use.
“I dabble in making sawdust – that’s what my wife says,” Pacillas said, adding it’s a way to take time to be by himself in his modest garage workshop.
As a police officer, his skills are more refined by his tenure: He has served on the force 38 years, about 14 of them as assistant chief.
Pacillas, 60, was appointed interim chief in February after former longtime Chief Greg Allen died in January. He was officially hired as the new chief on Oct. 2 – two weeks after the city announced four finalists for the job following a nationwide search.
El Paso Matters sat with Pacillas in his second-floor office of police headquarters in Central El Paso to talk about what inspired him to become a police officer, his leadership style, how he will address recent allegations and arrests of officers related to sexual misconduct, the department’s response to individuals in mental health crisis, and issues surrounding social justice.
‘I’ll take care of people’
Pacillas was born and raised in El Paso and graduated from Burges High School. A lunchtime locker room incident in seventh grade at Ross Middle School solidified his trajectory into law enforcement.
“I went to my locker in the hallway – back in those days you had lockers. I was coming from different teachers classes and a note was left in my locker. I opened it up, thought that it was a note from a girl. It wasn’t,” Pacillas said.
The note, with $20 enclosed, was from a classmate named Miguel asking if Pacillas would be his friend. Pacillas’ math teacher, Mr. Mangrum, noticed the perplexed look Pacillas had on his face and said Miguel was being picked on by other classmates.
“Nowadays they call it bullying,” Pacillas said.
Pacillas and his friend, who were both on the football team, started hanging out with Miguel during lunch and after school, until Miguel moved on to another school. Pacillas returned the $20.
“Taking care of somebody – he was probably picked on and stuff like that – it was a good feeling and at that point, I decided I want to be a police officer. I’ll take care of people,” Pacillas said.
As police chief, Pacillas oversees a department of more than 1,130 sworn officers and about 270 civilian personnel, as well as a $192 million annual budget. Pacillas will be paid $210,000 a year.
Pacillas said his leadership style revolves around fairness, accountability and treating everyone like a human being.
“That’s how I was raised – you treat everybody decently and you respect people. I want people to understand that’s where I come from,” he said.
His leadership will be key as he runs the department that has received praise for getting El Paso recognized as one of the safest cities in the nation, but also criticized as a hostile workplace for women and using excessive force in certain situations.
Officers’ sexual misconduct, criminal allegations
Pacillas said his first priority is protecting individuals who make any type of outcry against another officer while determining what type of investigation needs to unfold, whether at the administrative level or as a criminal investigation.
An El Paso Matters investigation this summer revealed numerous EPPD officers had been accused of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct toward women and received little to no disciplinary action. Two police supervisors in August were charged with official oppression related to alleged sexual harassment.
“It’s always been a zero tolerance (policy), and if it’s investigated and there is misconduct it’s going to be addressed,” Pacillas said. “Whether it’s an administrative sanction, or on these two individuals, there were criminal allegations and met the level of probable cause to get warrants for the arrest.”
Former EPPD Sgt. Linda Hanner, who retired from the force after 20 years, came forward to El Paso Matters with concerns about disparities in the way women officers are treated compared to their male counterparts. Hanner expressed concerns that Pacillas, who was assistant chief to Allen for several years, may not be able to truly change the department’s misogynistic culture.
“I hope that he’s able to change the dynamics of the police department,” Hanner said. “But it’s difficult if you still have the same people around you and they want that same police culture.”
Hanner said the recent arrest of the two officers is not enough to instill change.
“You just cannot go after two people and it’s over – it has spread like a disease. This police culture is rampant,” she said. “It’s gonna take a lot of training and a lot of self awareness and a lot of accountability, which he’s not going to do.”
Pacillas said leadership will listen to the victims and have a fair investigation process, but noted that officers have a contractual right to an appeal process if allegations are sustained, and discipline is given. However, once it gets to that stage, it can involve the police union, arbitrators and may lead to an independent court judge making a final ruling on the discipline.
“If they decide in favor of the department, and the city of El Paso, it’s final. That’s what it is. If the department or the judge finds in favor of the employee and the union, it’s final. There’s nothing I can do about that on either side,” he said.
Regardless of the appeal process, Pacillas said taking allegations seriously and taking action will make a difference.
“I think that sends a very effective message out there that it’s going to be dealt with,” he said.
He said officers can also report instances of alleged misconduct through the city’s human resources department. Prior to this change under the collective bargaining agreement approved in March, incidents were reported to the police department’s internal affairs.
Responding to people in mental health crisis
In 2017, the police department launched a crisis intervention team program after city Rep. Alexsandra Annello pushed for funding. The move followed multiple lawsuits filed against the department between 2014 and 2017 alleging excessive force and deadly force against people suffering a mental health crisis.
Two of the lawsuits headed for jury trials were settled this year. In those two lawsuits, federal judges determined there was enough evidence that showed the department, under Allen’s leadership, poorly trained its officers on how to respond to mental health cases.
Crisis intervention teams are designed to improve police officers’ ability to safely intervene, link individuals to mental health services and divert them from the criminal justice system when appropriate. El Paso was the only large Texas city without an established CIT when the program launched in 2019.
Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, the attorneys who represented the families in the two deadly force lawsuits against the city and Allen, said they hope Pacillas will “break from past practices.”
“Since Chief Pacillas was in a position of leadership during the time systemic failures in accountability and training were discovered in the department, it is our hope that he will break from past practices and follow the road map provided by federal district court decisions in recent civil rights cases to make the needed changes,” Coyle and Benoit said in a statement to El Paso Matters.
“Without courageous leadership, the use of excessive force, especially against those suffering a mental health crisis, will continue to harm members of our community.”
Pacillas said the department has always mandated mental health training for all its officers, but the CIT officers undergo 320 training hours before being deployed.
Allen mandated that all officers on the force undergo also 320 hours of training, but completing the hours for the entire department will take time.
EPPD now has 14 teams working seven days a week, covering about two-thirds of the day, including peak early evening hours. Pacillas said he’d love to have CIT officers available at all times and follow-up units to work with Emergence Health Network and other mental health professionals. That would require an additional 35 to 40 officers and specialists, he said.
Pacillas said the 911 call center over the last several months has added licensed clinicians fielding calls to determine the level of response needed and whether they can get the individual into mental health resources.
Pacillas said the department has also started a working group with EHN, the district attorney, county attorney, judges and other people in the mental health community to ensure patients stay on treatment plans.
“Whoever it is, we need to get all these individuals that need the services, the medication, whatever it is that’s determined by the professionals and get them the help that they need,” he said.
El Paso Strong resolution, accountability task force
In June 2020, the City Council passed the El Paso Strong resolution in response to nationwide unrest over police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
The resolution followed multiple protests in El Paso where police equipped with riot gear dispersed the crowd using tear gas and rubber bullets. The resolution fell short of calling for reform, rather aimed to encourage “the elimination of racial disparities and improve law enforcement interactions.”
In October 2021, the city launched a multidisciplinary team based on the resolution.
Pacillas said the team had several meetings with community groups, including the Border Network for Human Rights, which has long advocated for police reform in El Paso.
“Whether it was discipline, the training, the selection – all that is what this cross functional team found and reported to City Council,” he said.
Samantha Singleton with the Border Network for Human Rights, who worked with Pacillas and met with the city throughout the process, said there have not been recent meetings regarding the multidisciplinary team.
“As a community, we cannot ignore the concerning and troubling culture and internal procedures within the EPPD. We encourage Chief Pacillas, in this new role, to take the necessary steps and be the leader toward establishing community policing values and bringing forth bold action for accountability, transparency, and oversight,” Singleton said.
Singleton said BNHR, which also developed its own police accountability task force, still wants to see changes in the police department’s discipline review board. The group has advocated for an independent review board outside of the police department and internal affairs.
Pacillas said he’s open to continued discussions, adding that the discipline review board comprises community residents and police officers from every rank. And the department has to work under the civil service rules and the collective bargaining agreement, he noted.
“Whether it’s once again the group, an individual citizen, or the department – this is a human endeavor, so there’s constant change and we have to continually learn and listen to each other,” Pacillas said. “And that goes for any group that is willing to and wants to be involved with us.”
El Paso Police Chief Peter Pacillas encourages the community to get involved with the department.
Volunteer: Pacillas said there are several volunteer opportunities with the police department – including Neighborhood Watch and Citizen Advisory Board programs – and is hoping to garner more community involvement. Visit eppd.org to see what volunteer and community involvement programs are available.
Reporting crime: Pacillas said reporting alleged crimes is helpful to the department and encourages the community to do so. Call 411 or Crime Stoppers to give tips. Call 911 in case of an emergency.
Disclosure: Attorneys Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit represented El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.