Police in Puerto Rico Accused of Abuses

Charlie Savage and Lizette Alvarez (The New York Times) reported today (September 8, 2011) on the United States Justice Department’s denunciation of the Puerto Rico Police Department, underlining “a ‘profound’ and ‘longstanding’ pattern of civil rights violations and other illegal practices.” Here are excerpts here with a link to the full article below:

In a 116-page report that officials intend to make public Thursday, the civil rights division of the Justice Department accused the Puerto Rico Police Department of systematically “using force, including deadly force, when no force or lesser force was called for,” unnecessarily injuring hundreds of people and killing “numerous others.” The report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, says the 17,000-officer force routinely conducts illegal searches and seizures without warrants. It accuses the force of a pattern of attacking nonviolent protesters and journalists in a manner “designed to suppress the exercise of protected First Amendment rights.”

And it says investigators “uncovered troubling evidence” that law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico appear to routinely discriminate against people of Dominican descent and “fail to adequately police sex assault and domestic violence” cases — including spousal abuse by fellow officers. “Unfortunately,” the report found, “far too many P.R.P.D. officers have broken their oath to uphold the rule of law, as they have been responsible for acts of crime and corruption and have routinely violated the constitutional rights of the residents of Puerto Rico.”

The report is likely to intensify a sense of distress among the nearly four million American citizens who live on Puerto Rico, where violent crime has spilled into well-to-do areas. While violent crime has plummeted in most of the mainland United States, the murder rate in Puerto Rico is soaring. In 2011, there have been 786 homicides — 117 more than at this point last year.

Rather than helping to solve the crime wave, the Puerto Rico Police Department is part of the problem, the report contends. In October, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 61 officers from the department in the largest police-corruption operation in bureau history. And the arrest of Puerto Rican police officers, the report says, is hardly rare. [. . .] Its investigation of the Puerto Rico police, which began in July 2008, resulted in one of the most extensive such critiques the department has ever produced. It condemns nearly every aspect of the force — its hiring and training practices, the way it assigns and promotes officers, and its policies governing officer behavior and accountability for misconduct.

The report recommends 133 remedial measures that would amount to a sweeping intervention. It is likely to create a political headache for Puerto Rico’s governor, Luis G. Fortuño, a Republican who took office in 2009 and, as chief executive, oversees the department. Mr. Fortuño has been criticized for his administration’s handling of a series of mostly nonviolent demonstrations by students and workers to protest higher university fees and government layoffs. Riot police hit protesters, bystanders and journalists with batons and used pepper spray and choke holds, in incidents that were videotaped and are discussed in the report.

Two months ago, Mr. Fortuño named a new police superintendent, Emilio Díaz Colón, a former National Guard adjutant general. During his confirmation, Mr. Díaz said he would not shy away from doing what was necessary to “convert the Puerto Rican police into an example of a disciplined, effective” force, but also said he did not plan any immediate major changes.

[. . .] The Justice Department began the investigation in part due to complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union. In June, when President Obama visited the island, the A.C.L.U. sent him a letter contending that the police had “engaged in a level of brutality against U.S. citizens” with a degree of impunity that “would not be tolerated in the 50 states.”

While the report said Puerto Rican officials cooperated with the investigation, it was hindered by poor record-keeping. For example, the Puerto Rico Police Department reported 39 rapes last year — a figure the report portrays as unbelievable because nearly every other jurisdiction has far more rapes than murders. The report focused on the “rampant” use of “unnecessary or gratuitous” force, a problem made worse by the use of tactical units — heavily armed officers who are poorly trained and steeped in “violent subcultures” — for ordinary police work. It says such units frequently “rely on intimidation, fear and extreme use of force to manage crowds and are often deployed to low-income and minority communities on routine patrols.”

For original article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/us/08police.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

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