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US Justice report accuses Puerto Rican police of persistent illegal practices, discrimination
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) ' The 17,000-officer police force in Puerto Rico has unnecessarily injured hundreds of people and killed numerous others, engaging in a long-standing pattern of illegal practices, the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division said Thursday.
In a 116-page report, the department also said that the force, the second-largest police department in the U.S., has routinely conducted illegal searches and seizures without warrants.
"It would be an enormous mistake to continue attributing the widespread and ongoing police misconduct that infects the PRPD to an isolated group of individual officers or a seemingly intractable crime problem," the report stated.
The study is the most extensive issued by the Justice Department since March, when it released the results of a similar investigation into the New Orleans police department.
The Justice Department will pursue a lawsuit if the Puerto Rican government does not adhere to the report's 133 recommendations, said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.
"The department is broken in a number of critical ways," he said. "There have been too many fits and starts in Puerto Rico. ... The problem has not gotten any better."
Gov. Luis Fortuno said the reform process could take 15 years, but he said that he sent the Justice Department a plan in March detailing how police would enforce 110 of the 133 recommendations.
"This administration is committed to implementing a sustainable reform," he said. "We have recognized the same problems and we have a very similar vision."
Puerto Rican Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza said the government also is enacting a separate plan with 137 initiatives to improve the police department and is. He said his department aggressively prosecutes police lawbreaking.
"All those rotten apples, we are getting rid of them," he said.
Recently appointed Police Chief Emilio Diaz Colon, a retired National Guard general, said the department is already providing more training to 1,500 officers.
One of the Justice Department report's main findings is that police have used "unnecessary and unreasonable" deadly force while arresting people who posed little or no harm and who did not resist the arrest.
"Many subjects of excessive force were, at the time of the incident, carrying out ordinary activities or committing minor infractions," according to the report, which listed several of those killings, including the 2007 fatal shooting of an unarmed man that was caught on camera. One of the officers was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 109 years in prison.
Scant supervision of police officers also has led to widespread excessive use of force, Perez said. "Tactical units have been allowed to develop violent subcultures."
More than 1,700 police officers were arrested from January 2005 to November 2010, while hundreds of other officers were accused of domestic violence, the report found.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which issued its own report earlier this year alleging police brutality, praised the federal investigation.
"These findings are incredibly detailed," said Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher for the ACLU. "Unfortunately, it took the intervention of the Department of Justice to convince the (police) department that it needed to make real changes."
The Justice Department report said Puerto Rico police appear to routinely discriminate against people of Dominican descent and that "there is troubling evidence" that police frequently fail to properly investigate sex crimes and incidents of domestic violence. The report also concludes that police have attacked journalists and peaceful protesters in an attempt to smother First Amendment rights.
Puerto Rico is battling a soaring crime rate, with 789 people reported killed so far this year, compared with 675 in the same period last year, when the island of 4 million people recorded its second-worst year for homicides, with 955 people killed. A record 995 were reported killed in 1995.
Some Puerto Rican officials maintain that drug trafficking and social deterioration are fueling the wave of violent crime. One officer told federal prosecutors, without complaint from his supervisors, that police have to violate civil rights to fight crime and meet goals, the study stated.
"The Puerto Rico police department cannot use a rise in crime to justify systematic violations," Perez said. "I categorically reject this false choice."