Puerto Rico: Police brutality is rampant on ‘impunity island’
Betty Peña and her 17-year-old daughter Elisa Ramos Peña get doused with tear gas at a peaceful 2010 protest.
By ED MORALES
It doesn’t exactly paint the picture of “La Isla del Encanto.” But in “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force,” a disturbing report released yesterday by the ACLU during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, the message, reinforced by research carried out over the past nine months, remains the same: “The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) is a dysfunctional and recalcitrant police force that has run amok for years.”
The report echoes a previous, scathing one on police brutality and abuse of civil rights in Puerto Rico released last September by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which put the island commonwealth’s police department on notice, providing some hope that the situation might change.
But that couldn’t be further from reality. The new report goes on to say that the use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant.
In its 180 pages, there is an even more detailed examination of a troubled 17,000-member police force (the second-largest in the U.S.), its executive summary making the following points:
1) The “pervasive corruption” of the force is demonstrated by the arrests of 1700 officers between 2005 to 2010, nearly 3 times the amount of officers arrested in New York, whose department is twice the size. Many of those cases involve domestic violence against their own spouses.
2) Since 2007, 28 people have been killed by PRPD, many under circumstances that were “unjustified and avoidable.”
3) There is a quantifiable pattern of excessive police force used against low-income, black and Dominican communities in Puerto Rico.
4) Excessive force against protestors have had a chilling effect against constitutionally protected protest. Many activists have ceased protests or scaled back their activity because they fear arrest or unsafe conditions.
5) PRPD has failed to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2007, 25% of women killed by their partners had previously reported incidents of domestic violence to the department.
6) The department lacks the ability to systematically investigate or punish incidents of police brutality.
7) The PRPD generally fails to provide guidelines for use of force, there is a lack of oversight of police practices, and there is insufficient training and transparency in the implementation of policy.
In September 2010, PRPD officer Abimalet Natal Rosado fatally shot José Alberto Vega Jorge in the back of his head. The unarmed 22-year-old was present during a robbery at a Burger King and was willing to offer his testimony; he was not a suspect. The victim was brought to the hospital over an hour after the shooting.
“This is a place where American citizens and immigrants are enduring terrible abuse at the hands of their own police force, and the local and federal governments are letting it happen,” says Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. “The Puerto Rican government has promised reform for years, but people are still suffering under a police department that is out of control. The U.S. Justice Department needs to take concrete action immediately to end the PRPD’s unconstitutional practices.”
But not everyone is taking the report’s findings as fact. Speaking on a radio show in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, police superintendent Héctor Pesquera said that the ACLU’s findings are “incorrect and irresponsible” and part of a “political agenda.”
“Have there been cases? Yes,” said Pesquera. “But it doesn’t mean the police are determined to violate the rights of citizens…It’s no different from police in other places in the world.”
Romero and his colleague in San Juan, William Ramírez, who heads the ACLU branch in Puerto Rico and held a simultaneous press conference, both threatened legal action if concrete measures are not taken soon to address the police brutality issue. “We were waiting for legal action by the DOJ against the government of Puerto Rico after they issued the report,” said Ramírez. “But time has run out. We’re in the process [of mounting a lawsuit] and it could be before the end of the month.”
The release of the DOJ’s report last year was the culmination of a three-year investigation that covered periods from 2004 to 2011, and is technically termed a “findings letter,” the release of which began negotiations with the Puerto Rican government.
According to Jennifer Turner, ACLU researcher and author of “Island of Impunity,” the options for an agreement are a consent decree, which involves the oversight of a federal judge, or a memorandum of understanding, which would be out of court. Turner’s impression is that the government of Puerto Rico strongly prefers the latter.
“They don’t want a judge that’s going to hold them in contempt for failing to abide by the agreement,” says Turner. “They want something on paper that they can ‘sort of’ implement ‘maybe’ to some extent.”
Joel Félix is a Dominican immigrant who was walking home alone on a recent Saturday just after midnight when six to eight PRPD officers exited their patrol car and savagely beat and kicked him, causing him to fall to the ground and lose consciousness.
A DOJ official tells Univision News that as far as the negotiations with the Puerto Rico government is concerned, “The department is engaged in productive discussions to resolve its findings, and we decline further comment at this time.”
So far the government, led by pro-statehood party governor Luis Fortuño, has not shown a great deal of progress on this issue. It took several months for them to replace the previous police superintendent, Emilio Díaz Colón, who famously denied there even was a DOJ investigation taking place weeks before the findings letter was issued last September and was widely regarded as incompetent.
In a court filing last year, Puerto Rico’s Justice Department denounced the DOJ report as unreliable, flawed, and biased. In January of this year, PRPD announced a new general use of force policy that the ACLU report denounces as “short of constitutional and US national standards…and lacks objective criteria on the use of lethal force.”
“The vast majority of our police are selfless, dedicated public servants and this [report] does not speak of them, it speaks of a minority,” said Governor Fortuño in a radio interview.
“Puerto Rico is so unique in that it’s an islandwide state police department, with no effective independent mechanism to monitor it,” says Turner. “It’s a legacy of colonialism. In 14 of the past 18 years the police superintendent has been a former FBI agent.”
Both José Figueroa Sancha, who preceded Díaz Colón and who was controversial for backing the beating of university demonstrators by the police in 2010, and the current superintendent are both ex-FBI agents.
The lack of proper training and monitoring has created a situation where police are sometimes left on duty after having committed various violations. In one case, as the ACLU report states, an officer who had been arrested eight times and who held the local police chief hostage at gunpoint was reinstated and went on to fatally shoot an unarmed teenager.
“People are really afraid to come forward,” says Turner. “It’s typical for people to file a report and then retract it because the police would show up at their home after they made the complaint.”
Ironically, since this is an election year, the fate of reform can hang in the balance. If Obama lost the presidency, many of the initiatives of his Justice Department, including actions taken against Arizona Sherriff Joe Arpaio, will be severely disrupted, if not discontinued all together.
For now, the solution to Puerto Rico’s policing problem has been left to just the hope of action taken by the DOJ or the pressure put on the system by institutions like the ACLU.
“I think there’s evidence that the problem has gotten even worse since the DOJ report came out,” says Turner. “We keep getting cases coming in right up to the present.”
Adds William Ramirez: “It seems like the only people who aren’t aware of this problem are the Police Department itself. And their own superintendent just denied the existence of the problem again today.”