Puerto Rican officials have dismissed a U.S. report alleging systemic corruption in their police force, in a discouraging sign for the prospects of police reform in the U.S. territory.
Puerto Rico's police force is “broken in a number of critical and fundamental respects.” So concludes a U.S. Department of Justice report released in September, the product of a three-year investigation by the department’s Civil Rights Division. According to the inquiry, police officers in Puerto Rico repeatedly commit civil rights abuses such as employing excessive force, conducting illegal searches, and making arrests without sufficient cause. The report also details widespread corruption in the force, noting that more than 1,709 officers were arrested between January 2005 and November 2010, on charges ranging from theft to drug trafficking and murder.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, director of the Civil Rights Division and Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez expressed his astonishment at the high level of abuse and corruption. “This is one of the worst departments I’ve seen,” Perez said. “Puerto Rico has just about every problem in the book and many problems that didn’t make it into the book.”
An illustration of the scale of police corruption was given on September 1, when a Puerto Rican Police Department (PRPD) officer was convicted of 28 charges of drug trafficking. Three weeks later, on September 23, federal prosecutor Rosa Emilia Rodriguez told local press that a recently broken up drug trafficking ring had paid several other -- the exact number was not made available -- members of the PRPD to act as “bodyguards” and protect drug shipments. The officers allegedly also provided the gang with tip-offs about raids.
The high incidence of corruption, along with the rise of violent crime, has prompted Puerto Rican Governor, Luis Guillermo Fortuño, to turn his attention to shaking up the police force. On the day that the report was published, the Fortuño administration released a press release pointing out his past efforts to promote police reform in the territory. In March the governor had submitted an action plan to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that addressed most of the recommendations in the recent Justice Department report, and contacted a team of advisers to help implement the plan. In July, Police Superintendent Jose Figueroa Sancha tendered his (likely forced) resignation from his post as the head of the PRPD in response to criticism over rising crime and the record number of murders in June.
But while the governor has at least paid lip service to the need to reform police, elements of his administration have been less open to the idea. Immediately after the report’s release, new Superintendent Emilio Diaz outright denied that any PRPD officers had violated civil liberties. On October 8, the Puerto Rican Justice Department issued a court motion declaring that the report’s methodology was flawed, and that its conclusion was “rather obscure.” The court motion came in response to brutality charges against police, in which the prosecutors sought to use the U.S. Department of Justice report to support the case.
The mixed messages on police reform in Puerto Rico could not be coming at a worse time. Security crackdowns in Mexico and Central America have caused federal anti-drug officials to predict that drug traffickers will increase the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean. This phenomenon may already be taking place in Puerto Rico, where there has been a marked increase in drug seizures over the past two years. Unless the territory makes more progress on shoring up its security forces, the inflow of drug money could contribute to its fast-rising level of criminal penetration.