New York Times
|Police officers detained student protesters|
at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan in 2011
photo by Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the government of Puerto Rico agreed Friday to sweeping changes to the commonwealth’s large and troubled Police Department intended to help overcome a history of discrimination, violence and corruption.
In a 102-page consent decree filed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit, Justice Department officials and the departing governor of Puerto Rico, Luis G. Fortuño, agreed to far-reaching changes in the way the 17,000-member force recruits, trains, promotes and oversees its officers. This includes strict new policies on the use of force, police interactions with gay and transgender Puerto Ricans, the department’s approach to domestic violence and its handling of civilian complaints. The agreement also reins in the department’s special tactical units, which have drawn much criticism over the years.
Both sides agreed to delay putting the changes in place for several months to give the administration of the incoming governor, Alejandro García Padilla, an opportunity to review and adopt it — or propose changes. The subject is also subject to judicial approval.
“The successful implementation of the reforms contained in this agreement will help to reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution and restore public confidence” in the Puerto Rico Police Department, said Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights.
The agreement follows a 116-page report the Civil Rights Division issued last year accusing the 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.”
Critics of the Police Department have long complained that the force is largely corrupt, often inefficient and sometimes ruthless. This year, the American Civil Liberties Unionwrote its own report on the department, highlighting widespread abuses and violations of civil rights, especially against poor people, black Puerto Ricans and Dominican immigrants.
“These abuses do not represent isolated incidents or aberrant behavior by a few rogue officers,” the report stated. “Such police brutality is pervasive and systemic, island-wide and ongoing.”
At the same time, murder is rampant on the island. Residents largely blame the police for failing to stem the killings. In 2011, Puerto Rico broke its own record, with 1,135 homicides, a rate of 30 killings per 100,000 residents.
The Justice Department report last year portrayed a police department riddled with problems. Officers routinely conducted illegal searches and seizures without warrants, attacked nonviolent protesters and journalists and discriminated against Dominicans, gays and transgender people. The department also failed to adequately handle sex assault and domestic violence cases, including spousal abuse by fellow officers.
Governor Fortuño said Friday that nothing was more important than the safety and quality of life of Puerto Ricans. The agreement, he said, establishes a clear path toward strengthening the Police Department.
“There remains a lot of ground to cover, but we have initiated a broad reform of the police that has been necessary for decades,” said Mr. Fortuño, who lost his re-election bid in November.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, under Mr. Perez, has threatened lawsuits and pushed through a series of consent decrees to overhaul troubled police departments, including a broad one with the City of New Orleans this year. The Puerto Rico agreement appears to go further.
Among other things, Puerto Rico has agreed to expel officers from heavily armed “special tactical units” who have a pattern of misbehavior and to end the practice of using them to perform ordinary police work and routine patrols, a practice linked to complaints of police brutality.
The earlier report said the units frequently relied on “intimidation, fear and extreme use of force.”
One example it cited was the killing of Cáceres Cruz in August 2007 by a tactical unit officer. Mr. Cruz was directing traffic when three officers, driving by, thought he had insulted them. They told Mr. Cruz he was under arrest and wrestled him to the ground. An officer accidentally shot himself in the leg. He then repeatedly shot Mr. Cruz, who was lying on the ground, in the head and body before leaving the scene.
An internal investigation cleared the officers of misconduct. But after a video of the confrontation surfaced in the news media, one officer was convicted of murder. It emerged that seven complaints had been filed against him, but had been largely ignored.
The agreement also called for new controls on stops, searches, and arrests, including a requirement that the department record the reason for the stop and the subject’s ethnicity.
Because of a stream of complaints involving prisoner abuse, supervisors at precincts and stations will have to “visually inspect each detainee or arrestee for injury” and interview them about any complaints of pain. A specific policy will be instituted for how the police should interact with gay and transgender people.
And to avoid the clashes seen in recent years between demonstrators and the police, crowd control rules must be improved and closely followed.
The report also tackles the longstanding problem of domestic violence and sexual assault on the island. The police will have to conduct more thorough investigations of these crimes, set up a 24-hour hot line and track the disposition of sexual assault cases.