Saturday, September 10, 2011

Justice Department investigation: Puerto Rico Police 'critically broken'

Police Brutality Clip Art

By Frances Robles • McClatchy Newspapers
Published: Friday, September 9, 2011

MIAMI — Puerto Rico's Police Department is critically "broken," and officers routinely violate constitutional rights while discriminating against Dominicans, beating innocent people and failing to investigate sex crimes, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday after a three-year investigation. The probe found police officers systematically used excessive force, arrested people without cause and conducted illegal searches, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division's scathing 110-page report calls for wholesale reform in a department where untrained and unsupervised patrol officers run roughshod over the U.S. Constitution and politically connected unqualified peers get promoted.

Perez compared the pervasive police abuses and corruption to New Orleans and Los Angeles in years past. "This is one of the worst departments I've seen," Perez said in an interview with The Miami Herald. "Puerto Rico has just about every problem in the book and many problems that didn't make it into the book."

Among them: police regularly failed to follow up on domestic violence complaints — meanwhile 1,500 domestic violence reports were filed against cops from 2005 to 2010. From January 2005 to November 2010, 1,709 police officers were arrested for crimes ranging from theft to rape and murder.

But as the murder rate soared past 700, the number of rapes logged on the entire island was just 38. "That's simply not credible," Perez said. Police leaders defended the department. "I dare say no agent of the police violated anyone's civil rights," Police Superintendent Emilio Diaz said at a news conference in San Juan. "It doesn't get to that."

Perez announced the findings in San Juan, where he was flanked by Gov. Luis Fortuno, who promised to take action. Puerto Rico and Washington vowed to work together on "systematic deficiencies" to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. "I will not hesitate to resort to litigation," Perez said.

The DOJ investigation comes just two months after the abrupt departure of Police Superintendent Jose Figueroa Sancha, who resigned a month after the release of an American Civil Liberties Union report, which documented widespread police brutality.

Figueroa Sancha presided over the department as crime rose 17 percent and more than 400 civil rights suits were filed against it. Last year, 61 police officers were arrested in an unprecedented FBI sweep.

"The constitutional violations we uncovered are pervasive and plague all levels of PRPD," the report executive summary said. "Our investigation concluded that a longstanding pattern and practice exists of PRPD officers violating the Constitution by using force, including deadly force, when no force or lesser force was called for. As a result, PRPDofficers have unnecessarily injured hundreds of people and killed numerous others.

"The path toward lasting reform will require nothing less than federal judicial intervention." 

Puerto Rican activists have denounced the brutality for years, accusing narcotics officers of planting drugs on innocent people and shooting unarmed suspects. The department came under fire last year, when officers swung batons and squirted pepper spray on unarmed student demonstrators at the University of Puerto Rico.

The report said the department often resorted to violence to squelch demonstrators' First Amendment rights to free speech, and written policies on use of force were vague or outdated.

"My first reaction when I heard about this Department of Justice report was: 'Who in Puerto Rico doesn't know that the Puerto Rico Police Department does this daily?' " said Giovanni Roberto, a student leader who said he was shoved and knocked about by officers determined to break up last summer's strike. "We were denounced as liars and exaggerators. How can we expect police to act any differently, when they have institutional support for their actions from the governor on down?"

Fortuno defended police actions during the strike, but on Thursday said his administration had already begun widespread reforms, including hiring 1,500 new officers. "We have taken responsibility," Fortuno said.

In a telephone interview with The Miami Herald, Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said the administration in March presented a draft action report addressing 110 of the department's 113 findings. "We are definitely on the right track and in tune with the DOJ," said McClintock, who performs the functions of a lieutenant governor. "We look forward to working with them."

McClintock said the department was working hard to hire more college-educated officers, including some with graduate degrees. The nearly 2,000 vacant supervisory positions are beginning to get filled, he said.

"We had systematic problems because we didn't have the number (of law enforcement personnel) we really need," McClintock said. "They cut corners to take cadets to the street before they were ready, and supervisor jobs were left vacant. Not all the equipment that had to be acquired was acquired. Not all the equipment that needed to be replaced was replaced.

"We are changing the rules of how things are done and will have more quality-educated officers than ever before."

He said the report failed to address whether federal law enforcement dollars were diverted from Puerto Rico to address the drug war in Mexico. Diaz, the new police chief, is a former National Guard general who worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is familiar with Washington, McClintock said.

Critics are unconvinced

"The administration has addressed this problem with a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign," said sociologist and activist Michael Gonzalez, who worked in Mayaguez neighborhoods where police were arrested three years ago for planting evidence. "They are running ads on the radio to wash the police department's face rather than actually invest in it."

ACLU Researcher Jennifer Turner said the Police Department will now be forced to work with the DOJ to reform, or risk a civil rights lawsuit from Washington. "It's not a few bad apples: there needs to be systematic reform, and the Department of Justice needs to be a part of it," she said. "Puerto Rico's police department has proven that it will not police itself."