Puerto Rico’s Policing Crisis

Puerto Rico’s Policing Crisis

Brutality is an old problem, one that has worsened under the government of Luis Fortuño.


On June 30, 2010, as part of a lesson in democracy, Betty Peña Peña drove with her daughter, Eliza, from the town of Caguas to the Capitolio building in Old San Juan, which houses the island territory’s legislature. They had been to several demonstrations before, particularly those organized by Puerto Rico’s teachers union, of which Betty is a member. This time they intended to join a coalition of university students, community organizations and labor unions at the Neoclassical Revival structure overlooking the Caribbean.

It was the last day of the session, and on the agenda were final arguments on legislation to carry out budget cuts designed to address what right-wing Governor Luis Fortuño had proclaimed a fiscal crisis. The session had been plagued by controversy surrounding the decision by Senate president Thomas Rivera Schatz, who belongs to Fortuño’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), to prevent the general public and independent media from entering the viewing galleries. The imposition of this unconstitutional restriction, coming after months of protest against the government’s harsh austerity policies, brought political tensions in Puerto Rico to a boil.

When Peña arrived with her daughter, the crowd, as many as a thousand or more, was singing and chanting slogans. As if sensing the wet gust of a wind that signals an impending tropical thunderstorm, Peña felt the atmosphere deteriorate quickly. “Suddenly a helicopter came over the ocean, really close to us, and we moved toward the students, who were by a row of parked cars, surrounded by a wall of police, the riot squad and mounted police,” she recalls.

Then a police officer, using a megaphone, ordered the crowd to disperse. In seconds the tactical operations unit—in actions that prefigured many of this fall’s evictions of Occupy Wall Street—began to viciously attack the demonstrators with batons and pepper spray. “They were just hitting people, and then my daughter, Eliza, was on the floor, and they hit me,” she says, beginning to sob. “But the blow didn’t hurt as much as when I saw her on the floor and I saw the police were on top of her.”

“The party in power wants Puerto Rico to be a state, but they don’t know the first thing about American democracy,” says William Ramirez, executive director of the Puerto Rico branch of the ACLU, which is suing the Puerto Rican police on behalf of the Peñas.

The brutality of police conduct that day was the culmination of a wave of violence that, while a problem for many years, has accelerated under the Fortuño administration. It drove Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican who attended the University of Puerto Rico, to rail against Fortuño on the floor of the House last February. “This year the people of Wisconsin took over the Capitol in Madison; they had 100,000 people there,” Gutierrez told me later. “But they didn’t send in the riot squad! They didn’t close down the Senate. Here, people march to the Senate and what did they do? They called the riot police and they pepper-sprayed, and I’m wondering, why isn’t anybody saying anything?”

In Washington the president and Congress remained silent, but in Puerto Rico people had been speaking up for quite a while. The efforts of Ramirez, along with those of another lawyer named Judith Berkan, helped to spur a three-year investigation of the Puerto Rican police by the Justice Department, the results of which were released this past September 8. Announced at a San Juan press conference hosted by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Pérez and Fortuño, the report found that the Puerto Rico Police Department—the second largest in the United States, with 17,000 officers—had engaged in a “pattern and practice of: excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment; unreasonable force…designed to suppress the exercise of protected First Amendment rights; and unlawful searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

The report details how these violations were systemic, “pervasive and plague all levels of PRPD”; and that there is a “staggering level of crime and corruption” among police officers. It also documented abuses of Dominicans, who tend to live in segregated neighborhoods, as well as a failure to investigate domestic crimes against women and violence against the LGBT community. And the ACLU has documented a decades-long history of abuses of poor Afro–Puerto Ricans. “The Puerto Rico police department is broken,” said Pérez, who promised to transform this report into “a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform” by continuing to work with and engage “stakeholders” like the Fortuño government, the police department and the larger community.

But the next step for the Puerto Rican people, its government and the police department is unclear. The DOJ has two choices: initiate a lawsuit and force the PRPD into a consent decree, which is a court-ordered settlement, or settle out of court and enter into a memorandum of agreement. How much cooperation the DOJ receives from the department—and the rest of Fortuño’s administration—in these early stages will determine which of these solutions will be implemented.

“This is the first time ever in our history that an investigatory body has said, ‘Not only do you have a corrupt police department but they engaged in criminal behavior, they violated human rights.’ If nothing else comes out of this report, just getting that is historic,” says Ramirez, a Bronx native who taught at the University of Puerto Rico and is now a permanent part of the island’s political fabric.

Like Ramirez and Luis Gutierrez, Judith Berkan has an intimate bond with the university, where she once taught in the law school. “The police department in Puerto Rico has had plenty of issues, which is at least partly due to their being a quasi-military unit to support US interests in Puerto Rico,” says Berkan, a Brooklyn native who has been litigating cases of police misconduct for thirty-five years. “If you look at the last eighteen years, in fourteen of those the police department has been run by someone from the FBI.”

In the mid-1980s Ramirez began working with residents of the poor San Juan neighborhood of La Perla, where everyone understands the pattern of police impunity. “If they go into my neighborhood to look for a drug dealer, they don’t knock my door down; they just go to the suspect’s house,” Ramirez says. “When they go to La Perla, they break down every door and wreck your house, and possibly beat you up.”

It was a barrage of lawsuits from Berkan’s office—most notably regarding the case of Miguel Cáceres, a father of three who was shot to death by an enraged officer and left to die on a street in a small town—that helped spur the four-year DOJ investigation in 2007. The killing of this unarmed man was a Rodney King moment for Puerto Rico; someone videotaped the shooting, showing it to be a clear case of police abuse.

The Cáceres killing was a textbook case of the systematic problems in the police department, as Berkan laid out in her lawsuit against PRPD officials. The lawsuit revealed that repeated violations of conduct are ignored, that protocols are ignored, that there is no systematic record-keeping or analysis of police shootings and that there are excessive delays in the disciplinary system and no redress for civilians who are victimized.

Enter Fortuño and the State of Emergency

Long before Fortuño’s rise to power, electoral politics in Puerto Rico had become a game of musical chairs, with ineffectual governance and corruption scandals. But when Fortuño took office in 2008, his PNP party took control of the legislative and judicial branches as well as the executive. And Fortuño used the recession—which had begun in 2006 on the island, at least a year before it hit the mainland—as an excuse to implement what he argued was a mandate for extreme change.

Previously the island’s resident commissioner, or nonvoting representative in Congress, Fortuño is a prominent member of the Republican National Committee and has extensive GOP connections. His former campaign consultant, Annie Mayol, currently his government affairs adviser, worked for Karl Rove during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency in the controversial Office of Political Affairs. Fortuño has been praised by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, who featured him on his website the Americano, and has been the subject of a glowing profile in the right-wing webzine Newsmax. While the PNP has usually been conservative, few Puerto Rican politicians have so stridently connected with the far right on the mainland as Fortuño. “Republicans are pointing to his extreme government-budget-slashing priorities as an example of what they’d like to do when and if they regain control in Washington,” says Puerto Rico Senator Eduardo Bhatia, a member of the rival Popular Democratic Party (PDP), which supports commonwealth status.

As soon as he entered office, Fortuño pushed through the infamous Law 7, whose full title is Special Law Declaring a Fiscal State of Emergency and Establishing an Integrated Plan of Fiscal Stabilization to Save Puerto Rico’s Credit Rating. The declaration of a state of emergency allowed the government to implement austerity measures, including the layoff of some 20,000 government employees. Less noticed was that because of the “emergency,” the government could take extraordinary measures to “protect the life, health and well-being of the people.”

“The layoffs start, so what begins to happen is that people begin to protest, and on May Day in 2009 we had 30,000 people marching,” says Ramirez. The first demos were peaceful, but Ramirez and others were concerned, because Fortuño had named José Figueroa Sancha as police chief. As deputy FBI chief in Puerto Rico, Figueroa Sancha had been involved in the 2005 extrajudicial killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, leader of the militant pro-independence group Los Macheteros. Ojeda Ríos’s killing was widely perceived by Puerto Ricans, regardless of their views on the Macheteros, as an improper FBI incursion into local governance. Months later, during a series of FBI raids designed to gather information about Machetero sympathizers, agents stormed a San Juan building. When a crowd of journalists showed up, the FBI pepper-sprayed them, and then hit them with batons while they were on the ground writhing from the effects of the spray. Figueroa Sancha was at the scene as deputy FBI special agent in charge.

Three months after the massive 2009 May Day strike, the police used batons to strike bystanders in the off-campus tavern area of the University of Puerto Rico, and one officer shot a female student with a tear-gas canister, causing a gaping wound. In 2010 a coalition of UPR students—alarmed by the intention of the board of trustees, which is packed with Fortuño acolytes, to increase tuition fees—decided to strike. On May 20 the police attacked a group of about 200 students, union leaders and public employees who were protesting Fortuño’s appearance at a fundraising event in a San Juan hotel. Videocameras caught the images of officers pepper-spraying directly into the faces of protesters, some of them middle-aged women. “The tear gas that they were using was a highly toxic form of CN gas,” says Ramirez. The gas is prohibited by many mainland police departments.

* * *

By the time of the Capitolio incident, there was mounting discontent over these incidents as well as the banning of the public from the legislature’s observer galleries. “You have to understand,” says journalist and lawyer Oscar Serrano, who is former president of the Puerto Rico Journalists’ Association, “the Puerto Rico Constitution was written after the International Human Rights Declaration of 1948, and it explicitly states that all legislative activities must be open to the public. And the people know this.”

The violence started inside the vestibule, where independent journalists were sitting in to demand access to the galleries. Connecticut native Rachel Hiskes, a UPR graduate student, was sprayed, violently pushed out the door and sent flying down the Capitolio steps after officers kicked an Amnesty International observer who was taking part in the sit-in.

Carmen Yulín, a PDP representative in the House, was also attacked. “I took my badge out, announcing that I was a legislator, and I was pepper-sprayed all over,” said Yulín. “I was thrown across a folding table and had ligaments torn in my rib cage. I was in a half-cast for six weeks.” What most frightened Yulín was that the attack was apparently not accidental. “When I was in the lobby, one of the security guys said, ‘This is for you, Carmen Yulín,’ and they started to hit me. Later I was told by a member of the administration that they weren’t going to rest until they cracked my head at the rally.”

The day after the rally, police superintendent Figueroa Sancha showed no remorse, insisting that he would do the same “today, tomorrow…and next month.” Fortuño accused students of bringing pepper spray and rocks to the demonstration and of not respecting the views of others. He also accused a group of “socialists” of planning to take the Capitolio by force. PNP leaders like Senator Roberto Arango and Fortuño’s chief of staff, Marcos Rodríguez Ema, strongly supported the riot squad’s actions at the Capitolio.

“The government clearly decided that they were going to make it very uncomfortable for you if you demonstrate against their policies,” says Ramirez. “If you show up at a march, you’re going to get beat up and pepper-sprayed. In constitutional law, we call that a chilling effect.”

Immediately after the Capitolio incident, Fortuño announced there would be an investigation, but the results were never made public. Two weeks after the incident the Puerto Rican Bar Association issued a 133-page document detailing police violations, testimonies of victims and its recommendations. This report predictably fell on deaf ears—a year earlier, when the bar association had accused the police of abusing their powers during the 2009 incident in the university off-campus bar area, it was met with open hostility by PNP officials and PNP law firms, which filed a flurry of suits designed to weaken the association.

Ever since membership became compulsory in 1932, the bar association has inspired frequent attacks because of its function as a forum for civic debate. But the attacks from right-wing Fortuño supporters intensified after he took office, even though its membership contains partisans from all three of Puerto Rico’s major parties. “In 2009, now that the PNP had taken control of both houses of Congress, along with the executive branch, the legislature passed two laws seeking to destroy the bar association,” says lawyer Berkan.

The association was accused by one dissident member of “violat[ing] the law and promot[ing] disobedience,” and the legislation eliminated compulsory membership and cut crucial government funding. “They also imposed a series of draconian restrictions on the Bar Association and prohibited it from engaging in expressive activity related to any political or religious ideas,” says Berkan. This legislation culminated many years of litigation initiated by rightist statehooders, who as “dissidents” within a compulsory bar had argued that they should not be compelled to buy its $80 annual life insurance. In 2006 the firm Indiano & Williams filed a class-action suit arguing that the mandatory insurance program was unconstitutional. Even though the association ended the program two months after the suit was filed, the court found in favor of the plaintiffs in 2008 and assessed more than $4 million in damages. Since the bar association has historically been a forum for political and legal debates in Puerto Rico and is perceived as a cultural institution, many considered this an attack on the cultural heritage of the island territory.

While the attack on the association has been orchestrated primarily by the rightist leadership of the PNP, it shows the unorthodox ties the party has occasionally had with US Democrats. Andrés López, a major fundraiser for the Obama campaign in Puerto Rico and among US Latinos, was a key participant in the class-action suit, and registered Democrat Pedro Pierluisi, the current resident commissioner, led a campaign to discredit Luis Gutierrez’s remarks in Congress.

The Future of Police Reform

In the aftermath of the DOJ report’s release, it’s clear that Puerto Rico faces a long, difficult road to achieve real reform, and that the efforts of the government appear inefficient, if not downright duplicitous. At the press conference announcing the report, Fortuño insisted that his government had begun taking steps toward reform soon after the 2010 Capitolio incident. While the ruling party produced no report on a par with the one produced by the bar association, in October 2010, after a new scandal involving the arrests of more than seventy officers on drug charges, the governor issued an executive order creating a monitor to oversee the police department and issue a report. Fortuño contracted a former PNP judge, Efraín Rivera Pérez, to compile the report, at a cost of $300,000. The result: a skeletal twenty-one-page missive with no statistics or historical data.

After filing it this past June 30, on the anniversary of Capitolio, Rivera Pérez left to become president of the Puerto Rico Lawyers Association, a new rival to the bar association. No new monitor has been named. “The police monitor’s office in Puerto Rico doesn’t exist right now,” says Ramirez.

On July 2 police chief Figueroa Sancha resigned, citing pressure arising from the island’s crime rate, which has skyrocketed over the past two years. In his place Fortuño named retired National Guard Maj. Gen. Emilio Díaz Colón. In August Díaz Colón made headlines when he denied at a press conference that there was a federal investigation. The next month, days after the DOJ report was issued, Díaz Colón said the PRPD was so fiscally strapped it would be hard to implement change. While this could be taken as an excuse to do nothing, New York–based ACLU researcher Jennifer Turner agrees. “They have very little money allocated outside of payroll, and it’s going to be difficult, for example, to create a computer system to track repetitive conduct by abusive officers.”

Ever since the DOJ report’s release, Fortuño has been on the defensive over the disclosure that his government spent $1.7 mil-
lion to hire former White House deputy drug czar Robert Warshaw, whose firm consults with and helps rehabilitate police departments in trouble.

Another disturbing development has been the police violence during a second strike carried out by University of Puerto Rico students, from December 2010 to March 2011—just after Fortuño said he was committed to reform. The government ordered the police and riot squad to occupy the campus, and “violence became like a daily event,” says student leader René Reyes Medina. When students engaged in civil disobedience, police, including high-ranking officers, dislodged them using pressure-point control tactics on the neck and eyeballs that in at least one case caused a student to pass out.

Adriana Mulero, another student leader, was sitting in on campus when the police used these techniques on her. “The policeman who tried to move me applied pressure on my neck, and I felt an intense pain I didn’t expect, and I began to have difficulty breathing,” she says. “Afterwards I was handed off between officers, and they grabbed me by my breasts and thighs. I made a public statement denouncing that as an attack on women. During my second arrest, several of them attacked me by squeezing my neck, saying, ‘This is the one who complained about grabbing her breast!’ and they called me a whore. That hurt even more than when they hit me.”

While the release of the DOJ report would seem to put the police under a microscope for the foreseeable future, the ACLU’s Ramirez is still concerned about violence. “I have no doubt it’s going to happen again,” he says. “The governor uses code words to justify violence against certain groups.”

“In the spring we had a meeting with government officials there,” says ACLU researcher Turner. “And [Fortuño’s chief of staff] Marcos Rodríguez Ema kept stressing that we needed to include the violation of the right of students to study by other students. The attorney general, Roberto Sánchez Ramos, actually said they were allowed to arrest someone who cursed at one of the officers. He said it was a felony! That’s constitutionally protected speech. You can imagine what the police officers think.”

Rodríguez Ema is widely recognized as the member of the administration most prone to violent and provocative statements. Five months after the governor claimed he’d begun the process of change, Rodríguez Ema was quoted in the press as saying the police should remove student protesters from university grounds by force—a patadas—“and those bandit professors who are inciting them, too!” The day after the DOJ report was released, Governor Fortuño offered this assurance to Puerto Ricans that he was working on reforming his broken policing system: he named Rodríguez Ema as the point man to monitor the overhaul of the police department.

“It’s not my role to tell the governor who is on his team,” said Assistant Attorney General Pérez. “Our role is going to be to attempt to translate our findings into an accountability document. I hope we’ll be successful, and I’d rather fix the problem than fix the blame. If you can’t fix the problem in a sustainable way, we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action in court.” Those sound like comforting words, but the ACLU’s Turner is concerned. “Because police abuses are continuing in PR, we feel it is important for DOJ to take action as quickly as possible,” she says. “We feel that any agreement between the DOJ and the PRPD needs to be court-monitored…. If it is not subject to court enforcement, the PRPD would fail to deliver on promised reforms.”

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