Feds cite Puerto Rico police for pattern of abuse

Probe faults use of excessive force, improper searches

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The Puerto Rico Police Department engaged in a “pattern and practice of misconduct” that included the use of excessive and deadly force and unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, a three-year Justice Department investigation has concluded.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights said its investigation - begun in 2008 under President George W. Bush - documented long-standing abuses that included the use of deadly force that injured hundreds of people and killed numerous others when no force or lesser force was called for.

The department said Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) officers regularly relied on the indiscriminate use of chemical agents, batons, physical force, chokeholds and pressure techniques. It said PRPD officers often pushed, struck or sprayed protesters and threw rocks and other objects at persons who posed no significant threat.

It also said there was “troubling evidence” the PRPD frequently conducted unauthorized searches of civilians’ homes; planted “evidence” during those searches; failed to properly investigate and document sex crimes and incidents of domestic violence; and engaged in discriminatory practices that targeted those of Dominican descent.

The department also described as “staggering” the level of crime and corruption involving PRPD officers, noting that from January 2005 to November 2010, more than 1,709 PRPD officers were arrested on charges ranging from theft and simple assault to rape, drug trafficking and murder. Hundreds of officers also engaged in domestic violence, with many having been arrested multiple times for harming their partners.

“The Puerto Rico Police Department is broken in a number of critical ways,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. “The problems are wide-ranging and deeply rooted, and have created a crisis of confidence that makes it extremely difficult to develop police-community partnerships that are a cornerstone of effective policing.”

Mr. Perez said the Justice Department will work with Gov. Luis Fortuno, Police Superintendent Emilio Diaz Colon and the public to “create and implement a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform.”

Mr. Fortuno said his administration is committed to pushing forward a comprehensive reform plan to “improve the professionalization of the police force and enhance public safety.” He promised continued collaboration with the Justice Department on “rigorous police reform efforts already under way on the island.”

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero said the Justice Department report confirms a systematic pattern of civil rights violations and other abuses by Puerto Rico police that the ACLU had documented for several years.

“The report confirms a breathtaking level of violence and corruption throughout the PRPD,” Mr. Romero said. “With the facts laid bare, it is now the responsibility of the Puerto Rican government and the Justice Department to make sure the police abuse and brutality end as quickly as possible.”

The Justice Department report comes at a time of crisis on the island when, contrary to national trends, violent crime increased overall in Puerto Rico by 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. In 2010, Puerto Rico saw the second-highest number of homicides in its history, a trend that is escalating in 2011.

Mr. Perez said that to create lasting reform, the PRPD must act “decisively, transparently and immediately” to develop and implement new policies and protocols, and train its officers in effective and constitutional policing.

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