Police Brutality and Unjustified Use of Lethal Force in Puerto Rico

Document Date: June 19, 2012
Affiliate: ACLU of Puerto Rico National Chapter

Since 2007, Puerto Rico Police Department officers have fatally shot, beaten, or Tasered unarmed men, the mentally ill, individuals who posed no threat to officers or bystanders, and individuals who could have been restrained with less force. A series of widely reported police killings over a nine-month period in 2007, one of which was captured on film, brought to light an ongoing problem of PRPD officers’ use of deadly force, but did not result in reforms that would curb these abuses.

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According to statistics provided by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice (PRDOJ), PRPD officers killed 21 people in 2010 and 2011. The ACLU documented 28 cases in which PRPD officers are reported to have killed civilians from 2007 and 2011. In most of these cases, the deaths were unjustified, avoidable, and/or not necessary to protect the life of an officer or civilian. We know of at least eight additional cases in which PRPD officers shot and killed civilians within that timeframe, but the ACLU was unable to document the circumstances of those killings.

The ACLU documented recent cases in which police shot and killed an unarmed boy as young as 14, and a man as old as 77, who was shot when police entered his home to serve and execute a search warrant. Because it is difficult to obtain case information except where there was a public scandal or related litigation, the ACLU’s research on use of lethal force relies heavily on cases that have been exposed by local news media. For each of these cases that emerged in newspaper headlines, there are doubtless many others.

Excessive Force against Low-Income, Black, and Dominican Communities

PRPD officers assigned to tactical units regularly use excessive force while on routine patrols and checkpoints in low-income, Black, and Dominican communities. During encounters with civilians in these communities, officers routinely use excessive force or resort to force unnecessarily and inappropriately, and they disproportionately target racial minorities and the poor. The PRPD is using excessive force as a substitute for community policing.

Police use excessive force including beating with batons, kicking, punching, throwing on the ground or against walls and objects, chokeholds, and shooting with firearms. In the cases documented by the ACLU, police inflicted injuries including: a broken jaw, cracked or lost teeth, bone fractures, internal bleeding, severe contusions, abrasions, lacerations, organ damage, organ failure, traumatic brain injury, paralysis, brain death, and death. In the cases documented by the ACLU, victims were not resisting arrest or were already restrained, unarmed, and posed little or no risk to officers or bystanders at the time of officers’ use of force. The ACLU documented cases in which police severely beat individuals already restrained in handcuffs, and in some cases police did not arrest victims after injuring them, merely leaving them broken and bleeding on the street or in their homes.

Excessive use of force is rampant. According to data provided by the PRPD’s Auxiliary Superintendency for Professional Responsibility (Superintendencia Auxiliar de Responsabilidad Profesional, or SARP), which oversees the internal administrative investigations of PRPD officers, civilians filed at least 1,768 complaints against officers for excessive or unjustified force and assault from 2004 to August 2010. These numbers are most surely low and do not accurately represent the extent of the problem: the ACLU’s research shows that civilians regularly elect not to report police abuse because of a lack of faith in the investigatory and disciplinary system; because of widely-known impunity for police abuse; and because of fear of retribution for filing complaints of civil rights and human rights violations.

Join the ACLU in calling on Governor Luis Fortuño, and PRPD Chief Héctor Pesquera, to address the pervasive police brutality in Puerto Rico to ensure that the promises of the U.S. Constitution are as real for the citizens of Puerto Rico as they are for all other U.S. citizens.

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