Suit Comes on Heels of ACLU Report that Blasted Rampant Abuse by Puerto Rico Police
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SAN JUAN, P.R.—The American Civil Liberties Union and Kirkland & Ellis LLP today sued the superintendent of the Puerto Rico Police Department for violating the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters who were beaten and abused during demonstrations against controversial government policies including mass layoffs of public workers and cutbacks at a public university.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the General Student Council of the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico and a local union, says the Superintendent of the PRPD (currently Héctor Pesquera) encouraged a pattern of violence against demonstrators, including tear gas, pepper spray, beatings with batons, rubber bullets, and painful pressure point techniques.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the excessive force used by police violated the First and Fourth amendments, and also seeks an injunction requiring Pesquera to put in place a policy governing how police treat public protests and curbing the use of force against protesters.
“If these abuses had taken place in New York, or if the media in the continental United States had covered the events in Puerto Rico more widely, there would have been widespread outrage at the Puerto Rico Police Department’s actions,” says Marjorie Lindblom, a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
The federal suit, filed in the District Court of Puerto Rico, comes on the heels of a highly critical report by the ACLU detailing unprecedented levels of police abuse and civil rights violations by the PRPD, which is the second-largest police department in the U.S.
The suit is being brought on behalf of a labor union, the Federación Central de Trabajadores, UFCW (the “FCT”), and the university student council of the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus, the Consejo General de Estudiantes del Recinto de Río Piedras de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (“General Student Council”), organizations whose members have suffered and continue to suffer direct harm as a result of the PRPD’s gratuitous use of force.
The pattern of abuse started in 2009, when Governor Luis G. Fortuño proposed his controversial Fiscal and Economic Recovery Plan, commonly known as Law 7, which resulted in restrictions in the collective bargaining rights of unions and decreased funding for public universities. The eventual adoption of Law 7 sparked a series of protests during which the PRPD regularly attacked protesters exercising basic Constitutional rights.
“The police department appears to have an unwritten policy of suppressing the most fundamental rights under the constitution including the right to free speech,” said Christopher Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU.
The lawsuit details numerous instances of police abuse against peaceful protesters at locations that are traditionally the site of public demonstrations in Puerto Rico, including outside the Capitol Building and the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
For instance, at one demonstration outside a hotel hosting a political fundraising event for the governor, Luisa Acevedo, president of the FCT, was pepper-sprayed by police at close range. “I was incapacitated” Acevedo said, “but that didn’t stop the officer who pepper-sprayed me from hitting me with his baton, sending me to the ground.”
As Lindblom notes, “It is unfathomable that Ms. Acevedo, a woman in her mid-fifties, could pose a threat to heavily armed police officers from the riot squad.”
This was not an isolated incident. On June 30, 2010, for example, the PRPD used tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings with batons against University of Puerto Rico students, labor union leaders and members, and concerned citizens who had gathered outside the Capitol Building to peacefully protest recent government actions. The suit also charges that police regularly used excessive force against student protesters on the University of Puerto Rico campus and at other locations.
Outrage over the PRPD’s use of excessive force led the U.S. Department of Justice to release a report in September 2011 finding the PRPD had engaged in a pattern and practice of unreasonable use of force designed to suppress freedom of expression. But no meaningful reforms have resulted in the wake of the report.
“Plaintiffs were left with no choice but to turn to the judicial system in order to force the PRPD to take responsibility for its actions and to initiate real and lasting reform because neither public shaming nor informal political pressure have caused the PRPD to reform itself,” said William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico.
Attorneys on the case include Lindblom, Hansen, Ramirez and Nora Vargas-Acosta.
A copy of the lawsuit can be found at: