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Police Abuse in Puerto Rico: The Urgent Need for Real Change

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September 22, 2011

Today, The New York Times ran letters from Luis Fortuño, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Rosie Pérez, actress and activist who was a part of an ACLU fact-finding mission on police abuses in Puerto Rico.

They were responding to this month’s scathing Justice Department report finding widespread civil rights violations, corruption and illegal conduct at the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), and a subsequent Times editorial.

In her letter, Pérez writes, “The reprehensible record of corruption and abuse in the Puerto Rico Police Department is, sadly, old news to those who live on the island.” She goes on to detail the kinds of abuses that the ACLU has been documenting since 2004 — including “university students who were set upon by the police when they tried to exercise their right to protest peacefully… an officer groping at [a student’s] breasts and another … officer pressing a pressure point on her neck.”

In his letter, the governor stated that his administration is committed to reform to ensure that the PRPD “can both fight crime and protect civil rights.” Whether the Puerto Rican government follows through on promises with meaningful actions that produce real change remains to be seen. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero is meeting with the PRPD’s superintendent next week to discuss the urgently needed reforms.

Unfortunately, police brutality — in Puerto Rico and elsewhere — is nothing new. During the Bush administration, many abuses went unchallenged, but last week the Washington Post reported, “The Obama administration is ramping up civil rights enforcement against local police nationwide, opening a number of investigations to determine whether officers are guilty of brutality or discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities… All told, Justice’s Civil Rights Division is conducting 17 probes of police and sheriff departments — the largest number in its 54-year history. The investigations are civil, meaning they will not lead to criminal charges, but can result in court-enforced reforms.”

The Post also quoted the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel Deborah Vagins as stating, “This is long overdue… The Bush administration beyond dropped the ball. These are some of the most egregious situations, places where we have killings committed by officers.”

We’ll be releasing a report with findings about human rights abuses taking place in Puerto Rico later this year. In the meantime, you can learn more about our ongoing work on police brutality and the suppression of free speech in Puerto Rico here or in this new video that documents police violence against journalists in Puerto Rico.

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