Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

Puerto Rico's Shortsighted Police Reform

Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

Puerto Rico's Shortsighted Police Reform

Article excerpt

On August 11, 2007, 43-year-old father of three, Miguel Cáceres Cruz and his fellow scooter club members accompanied a 15-year-old girl on her quinceñera. The young girl and her company were partly blocking the street when three police officers passed. Heated words were exchanged, and the officers got out of their car. One of the three, Officer Pagan Cruz, lunged at Cáceres and in the ensuing struggle, Pagan shot Cáceres three times, coldly finishing him off with a shot in the back of the head. Officer Pagan did not come out unscathed; he shot himself in the foot and left for the hospital, leaving Cáceres lying dead on the ground.

In the past year there have been numerous, highly publicized instances of police brutality in the United States: Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, to name a few. This was Puerto Rico's moment of notoriety. Video coverage generated widespread condemnation from many Puerto Ricans who were already aware of their supposed protectors' proclivities for violence. The video also caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and later the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), both of which published reports critical of the Puerto Rican Police Department (PRPD).

What Were the Findings?

The DOJ report exposed how deeply entrenched police violence and corruption were on the island. The report called the PRPD "broken," and documented areas where the department systemically violated the law and Constitution: unnecessary force and illegal searches and seizures that violated the fourth amendment and force used to prevent first amendment rights from being exercised. In addition, it found that the PRPD failed to prevent sex crimes and domestic violence, while also racially profiling citizens of Dominican descent.

The endemic culture of corruption and violence reveals a callous disregard for the Constitution and the rights of Puerto Rican citizens by the very individuals charged with protecting these rights. This disregard is underscored by the high crime statistics of PRPD officers. From January 2005 to November 2010, 1,709 PRPD officers were arrested for robbery, assault, rape, drug trafficking, or murder. There were 1,459 allegations of domestic violence, and 98 officers were charged with domestic violence more than once. Fifteen hundred complaints were filed against PRPD officers for the use of excessive force, plus 268 from January 2009 to August 2010, and, in its largest corruption investigation to this day, the FBI arrested 61 PRPD officers on drug and firearm charges in October 2010.

In 2012, the ACLU launched its own investigation and came up with similar findings. It too found the abuses and constitutional violations to be systemic and deeply rooted. At the culmination of its six-month inspection, the organization found patterns of unreasonable force used against civilians disproportionately in poor, minority neighborhoods. They came across numerous instances of batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas being used against protesters to silence their dissent as well. Lastly, they found little effort was spent in preventing and protecting domestic violence victims and in policing rape and other "gender based crimes."

Not only is the PRPD brutal and violent but also ineffective in protecting the island's citizens.

The Reform

Four months before the DOJ report, in March 2011, the PRPD issued a reform plan called "Blueprint for Excellence." This plan stated the need for new policies to determine appropriate use of force, and advocated for a "train-the-trainer" concept to instruct officers on the appropriate use of force. Moreover, it outlined new disciplinary standards to improve the civilian complaint system, and created citizen interaction committees to improve relations between the community and its police. A promising aspect of the plan was the implementation of "Zones of Excellence," Bayamon Oeste was the first region to receive the plan, and if successful, the "Zones will be applied to the rest of the island. …

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