SAN JUAN (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union called on the U.S. Justice Department to take control of the Puerto Rican police force and ensure reforms are carried out. An ACLU report says officers routinely use excessive force, killing at least 21 people in the past two years.
The ACLU says the department, the second-largest municipal police force among U.S. jurisdictions, has failed to address corruption, mismanagement and human rights abuses outlined in a scathing 2011 Department of Justice report. Puerto Rico's government had acknowledged problems with the department and agreed to undertake reforms.
“These abuses do not represent isolated incidents or aberrant behavior by a few rogue officers,” the report said. “Such police brutality is pervasive and systemic, island-wide and ongoing. The Puerto Rico police department is steeped in a culture of unrestrained abuse and near-total impunity.”
Police Chief Hector Pesquera dismissed the report in an interview with radio station WAPA.
“It's absolutely false. This is not a reflection of reality,” said Pesquera, a former FBI official who became chief in April, replacing a National Guard general who held the post less than a year. “It is incorrect to say that the police dedicate themselves to violating the rights of citizens.”
The ACLU report noted that between 2005 and 2010 more than 1,700 officers were arrested on charges including murder, drug trafficking and domestic violence. The number represents nearly 10 percent of the police force and is nearly three times the number of officers arrested in a comparable five-year period in the New York police department which has more than twice as many officers.
“The human rights crisis in Puerto Rico is one of epic proportions,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said. “We have the second largest police department in the country running amok … If this were happening in any one of our major cities, this problem would not be allowed to languish.”
In the past two years, the department says, its officers have killed 21 people, including a 14-year-old boy and a 77-year-old man, but the ACLU believes the number is higher. In one case, a 22-year-old man who witnessed a robbery in September 2010 was giving police a statement when the gun of one officer at the scene accidentally went off, prompting another officer to fire 10 bullets, one of which fatally hit the man in the back of the head.