EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles has some strong words after County Commissioners voted this week to re-examine his office's budget in the wake of highly publicized calls nationwide to defund police agencies.
"You know you hear people calling defund law enforcement here in El Paso. Really? Here in El Paso? Where we have this relationship with the community that's far better than most jurisdictions, where you look at," Wiles said an an interview with ABC-7.
He continued, "I welcome anybody to come and look at internal affairs investigations that we've handed out. We take care of issues, we don't have those problems. We have a good relationship, and we want to continue that. And to say defund the Sheriff's Office, give me a break."
El Paso County Commissioners earlier this week voted 4-1 to approve a resolution condemning the killing of George Floyd and calling for change in local law enforcement agencies, including a review of the sheriff’s budget.
The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Carl Robinson, the only African-American member of the Commissioners Court, who said it was a tragedy, a disservice and an insult to condemn local law enforcement for the actions of bad elements elsewhere in the country.
Commissioner David Stout, who authored the resolution, said now is the time to examine whether there is overpolicing in El Paso. He said the clash between protesters and police at Memorial Park on Sunday, May 31, and the one downtown the following Tuesday showed an “evident lack of best practices” as law enforcement used riot gear, herded and corralled protesters as helicopters flew above making them feel intimidated, he said.
El Paso Police have said their officers worked to provide a safe space for demonstrators for hours, even escorting them and closing down streets for their safety, until a small group of protesters turned hostile and hurled bottles and rocks at the officers, at one point surrounding some of them. On the Sunday in question, officers used tear gas and pepper bullets to disperse the crowd of about 100, according to police.
Stout said it is time to listen to people who are screaming for justice.
Protesters across the nation have been using the rallying cry, “Defund the Police” and a majority in the city council in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed while in police custody said they would vote to defund and disband the police department.
Stout praised the Minneapolis City Council, which has been looking at how “policing in schools, policing of the homeless, the mentally ill, of youth that have issues is no longer viable. They are questioning the roles that police take and have, and are engaging the community to listen to them and see how they would like to see and envision public safety.”
“We need change in El Paso, too,” he said. “We spend millions every year in El Paso county in law enforcement and not nearly enough money in social services.”
He then called for “participatory budgeting” for the sheriff’s office, vowing to gather different community groups to make recommendations for how to best allocate funding to make the county safer.
“We can provide housing instead of jailing people, we can spend money in community-based anti-violence programs instead of gang units, we can spend more on non-coercive mental health and trauma services and more on getting young people to work, and instead of having police in schools – spend more money on counselors, after-school programs and non-coercive restorative justice programs,” said Stout who then listed the NAACP, Black El Paso Democrats, Young Democrats, Sunrise, Borderland Rainbow Center, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Group as groups who should be tapped to be part of the conversation.
“You mentioned a whole slew of groups, you didn’t mention law enforcement,” countered Commissioner Carlos Leon, who is a former El Paso Police chief and served more than 30 years in the force. “You’ve got to include them.”
Stout responded the inclusion of law enforcement groups in the discussion was implicit.
“These demonstrations around the world are very necessary,” said Leon. “ The violence, the looting, the burning… that goes without saying: there’s no room for that. It has to be peaceful,” he said stressing there are great law enforcement agencies in El Paso and the focus needs to be on transparency and hiring the right people while removing any bad elements.
“I want to be part of the change, “ Leon said before voting Yes.
County Judge Ricardo Samaniego also voted in favor of the resolution as he praised the sheriff’s office and called the recent clashes with protesters a “blemish” in the relationship between community and police.
It was commissioner Carl Robinson who called out other members of the court saying bluntly, “I listened to the pontification in regards to this issue and sometimes we talk out of both sides of our mouth.”
He said El Paso’s law enforcement, who ran towards danger during the Walmart mass shooting on August 3, 2019, should not be equated with the Minnesota police officers who allegedly killed George Floyd.
“We can’t condemn every police officer as if every police officer is guilty of that crime. No. We condemn those who are guilty,” Robinson said.
He said there may be some violence but questioned, “As a result of racial profiling? I don’t see it in El Paso.”
Robinson encouraged Stout to reach out beyond the groups he listed and involve the African-American community at churches, and include other groups such as Hispanics and Jews.
As for the resolution, Robinson said, “If we say we’re going to condemn the officers for their actions in Minnesota and other places, Yes. But condemn our law enforcement officer, or police department, sheriff’s department ? From my standpoint that’s a tragedy, that’s a disservice, an insult to say our police officers, our law enforcement agencies are painted with the same brush as those individuals in Minnesota and other places who committed those crimes so I vote No on the resolution.”