Police Brutality and Suppression of First Amendment Rights in Puerto Rico

Under the Constitution, Puerto Ricans are entitled to the same fundamental rights and protections as all U.S. citizens. But, over the last few years, police brutality and limitations on freedom of assembly and expression in Puerto Rico have escalated at an alarming rate.

The Puerto Rico Police Department has used excessive force against nonviolent protesters to suppress constitutionally protected speech and expression. Officers indiscriminately use chemical agents including a toxic form of tear gas and pepper spray, batons, rubber bullets and rubber stinger rounds, sting ball grenades, bean bag bullets, Tasers, carotid holds, and pressure point techniques on protesters. Police have regularly used excessive force in violation of protesters' First Amendment right to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, as well as their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Indiscriminate Use of Force

The ACLU has documented numerous instances of police abuse against protesters at locations that are traditionally the site of public demonstrations in Puerto Rico. The PRPD has regularly responded to peaceful protests by deploying scores of Riot Squad officers in full riot gear, including padded body armor, helmets with visors, combat boots, and plastic shields. They are customarily armed with long crowd-control batons; aerosol pepper spray canisters; tear gas riot guns, rubber bullet guns, and/or pepper-ball guns; and firearms with live ammunition.

In responding to entirely peaceful or largely peaceful political demonstrations, police routinely fired aluminum tear gas canisters at protesters from riot guns or “less-lethal launchers,” a firearm that physically resembles a rifle grenade launcher. Police also launched tear gas from helicopters, and video footage and photographs show thick clouds of tear gas engulfing protesters. Police doused protesters with pepper spray at point-blank range just inches from protesters' faces, directly into protesters' eyes, noses, and mouths. Protesters told the ACLU that police sprayed them so thickly with pepper spray that they were covered in the orange liquid, which poured down their faces and bodies, temporarily blinding them and causing excruciating pain that in some cases lasted for days.

Police have also routinely struck, jabbed, and beat protesters with 36” straight-stick batons, used as blunt impact weapons specifically for riot control. Riot squad officers struck protesters with two-handed jabs and single-handed strikes in which officers raised the batons over their heads to hit protesters with maximum impact. In numerous cases riot squad officers even chased after fleeing protesters and struck them in the head, back and shoulders from behind. Officers also used painful carotid holds and pressure point techniques intended to cause passively resisting protesters pain by targeting pressure points under protesters' jaws, near their necks, or directly on their eyes and eye sockets. Pressure point tactics not only cause excruciating pain, but they also block normal blood flow to the brain and can be potentially fatal if misapplied. In some cases these pressure point techniques have caused student protesters to lose consciousness.

In the cases documented by the ACLU, as a result of the PRPD's excessive use of force numerous protesters required and received medical treatment for blunt and penetrating trauma, contusions, head injuries, torn ligaments and sprains, respiratory distress, and second-degree burns from chemical agents.

The dearth of arrests at demonstrations indicates that protesters were not threatening public safety and the use of force was neither necessary nor justified.

These abuses have had a chilling effect on First Amendment-protected protest, and numerous university students and labor union leaders and members reported to the ACLU that they have ceased protesting, or significantly scaled back their protest activity, because of fear that they will again be subjected to police violence and baseless arrest.

All of the protesters interviewed by the ACLU told us that they believe the PRPD's use of force against them is designed to suppress their speech and expression, and is specifically directed at those with viewpoints that are critical of the current administration and its policies. Without exception, all of the concerned citizens, community leaders, university student activists, and labor union leaders and members we interviewed told us that they feel the police have targeted them because of the viewpoints they have sought to express.

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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