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Turning a Blind Eye: The Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico

Incidents with police have increased both in frequency and intensity since 2008.
Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 19, 2011

Today, there are American citizens who are being assaulted by police during peaceful protests, but you likely have heard very little about it. The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), the second largest police department in the country, is out of control, with a broken and inadequate system for investigating, or even recording, acts of severe police brutality — including lethal force — perpetrated against the communities it is meant to protect. While all of this is occurring in the public eye, none of it is making headlines.

Since 2004, the ACLU of Puerto Rico has documented numerous incidents of serious police misconduct. These incidents have increased both in their frequency and intensity since 2008, at which time the Department of Justice opened an investigation in response to our complaints. Most recently, in March-May 2011 the national office of the ACLU conducted fact-finding research in Puerto Rico, and in May 2011 convened a high-level delegation that went on a two-day fact-finding mission to further research the rise in police brutality in the Commonwealth.

Puerto Rico is home to more American citizens than 23 states and the District of Columbia. Its citizens are suffering abuses at the hands of its own police department that would never be tolerated anywhere else in the United States. Based on evidence documented during these trips, the PRPD has engaged in a level of brutality against U.S. citizens, that it shocks the conscience.

Last week, Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director, Laura W. Murphy, ACLU Washington Legislative Director, Juan Cartagena, LatinoJustice PRLDEF President & General Counsel, Angelo Falcon, National Institute for Latino Policy President, and Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher participated in a congressional briefing to discuss the preliminary findings of our fact-finding delegations and to raise awareness on Capitol Hill about the continuing crisis. Media, concerned citizens, and Hill staffers from numerous offices came out to learn about these abuses. Even Governor Fortuño sent his staff to distribute information intended to rebut the fact-finding mission.

However, the ACLU has compiled incidents of PRPD’s behavior that has been documented in video recordings and photographs. At the briefing, we played this chilling footage which shows numerous instances of brutality against protestors, including a police officer placing his hands around the neck of a young, unarmed protestor, cutting off her circulation until she passed out.

These examples have been part of an escalating problem. Starting in the summer of 2010, students of the University of Puerto Rico have been involved in protests about increased fees at the university. In order to quash the protests, the government of Puerto Rico activated riot squad officers, which resorted to police brutality. Students have been beaten, tasered, tear gassed, and shot at with rubber bullets. Police have also applied pressure techniques on immobilized protesters’ necks and eyeballs, and young women have been subjected to inappropriate sexual contact by police.

The Puerto Rican government has infringed on its other citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech and public assembly by cutting off public access to legislative sessions for months, even though the constitution mandates that these sessions be open. After massive layoffs, union leaders and even a legislator has been attacked by police during peaceful protests at the Capitol building, Supreme Court and governor’s mansion, which stands in sharp contrast to, for example, the peaceful protests over job layoffs in Wisconsin this year. Meanwhile, journalists attempting to cover these developments have faced physical assaults by police and obstruction of their access to information.

Perhaps most shocking, is the ongoing police brutality, including police killings of unarmed civilians and excessive force against civilians during anti-drug operations. In addition, the police department has singled out communities with a high proportion of racial minorities and indigent families for abuse, including the targeting of Dominican and Afro-Puerto Rican populations. As these injustices continue with impunity within the police department, they have also gone unaddressed by the Puerto Rican government or the Department of Justice.

The purpose of the briefing was to let the federal government know that this is a national crisis and our organizations are watching. Our elected and appointed government officials have a responsibility to speak out whenever and wherever they see injustice of this kind occurring. The ACLU has called on the Department of Justice to bring its long overdue investigation to a close. The PRPD has shown that it cannot police itself and DOJ must intervene to stop this pattern and practice of severe police misconduct. We have also urged members of Congress to speak out on this issue and to press DOJ to fully enforce our civil rights laws for all US citizens. Finally, we have appealed to President Obama to help as well. We applaud this administration’s vigorous support for the free speech and assembly rights of civil society in other countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia. However, as this administration turns its eyes toward abuses in other countries, it cannot turn a blind eye toward our own. We ask you to take action now and appeal to this administration to intervene and fully enforce the laws.

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