The Puerto Rico Police Department is “broken in a number of critical and fundamental respects,” according to a report released in September by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.1 The report, based on an extensive investigation of the PRPD conducted between 2004 and 2008, found that the 17,000-officer force had established a pattern of excessive force, unlawful search and seizure, corruption, and suppression of free speech. The report also pointed to “troubling evidence” that the PRPD underreports sexual assaults, fails to investigate incidents of domestic abuse (especially those involving members of the force), and routinely discriminates against members of the Dominican community in Puerto Rico.
For many Puerto Ricans, the findings of the report came as little surprise and only served to confirm what is widely known about the brutal and ineffective nature of policing in Puerto Rico.
“My first reaction when I heard about this Department of Justice report was: ‘Who in Puerto Rico doesn’t know that the Puerto Rico Police Department does this daily?’ ” University of Puerto Rico (UPR) student leader Giovanni Roberto told The Miami Herald.2
The DOJ report was released during a moment of deepening social crisis on the island. In contrast to the United States, where crime is on the decline, Puerto Rico has seen a 17% increase in violent crime from 2007 to 2009.3 In 2010, Puerto Rico reported 983 homicides, the third-highest ever, and 2011 is on record as the bloodiest year in Puerto Rico’s history, with 1,136 homicides.
According to the report, the PRPD is contributing to the crime problem rather than alleviating it: “More PRPD officers are involved in criminal activity than in any other major law enforcement agency in the country.”4 From January 2005 to November 2010, more than 1,700 officers were arrested on charges “ranging from simple assault and theft to domestic violence, drug trafficking and murder.”5 On October 6, 2010, 61 PRPD officers were arrested as part of Operation Guard Shack, the largest police corruption operation in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s history.6 Particularly worrisome is the number of PRPD officers who are the subject of domestic violence complaints and arrests. Between 2005 and 2010, the PRPD received 1,459 complaints of domestic abuse by officers of all ranks. Most of these officers remain on active duty, often receiving minimal disciplinary or corrective action. The DOJ report suggests that this failure to properly handle complaints of domestic and sexual abuse by officers has hindered the PRPD’s ability to effectively respond to and investigate sexually based crimes.
In addition to highlighting the PRPD’s involvement in illicit and corrupt activities, the report claims that the PRPD regularly uses excessive, sometimes deadly, force when arresting or detaining individuals who either pose little to no threat, or offer minimal resistance. The report cites the murder of Miguel Cáceres Cruz as one example that exposes the larger flaws of the PRPD.
On August 11, 2007, Cáceres Cruz, a 43-year-old father of three, was directing traffic as part of a motorcade for a quinceañero celebration in Humacao, a city on the eastern coast of the island. Officers Javier Pagán Cruz, Carlos Sustache, and Zulma Díaz de León drove by Cáceres Cruz and told him to keep traffic moving. The officers stopped their vehicle after they thought they heard Cáceres Cruz insult them. Pagán Cruz, a member of the Tactical Operations Unit, approached Cáceres Cruz and got into an argument with him as his fellow officers looked on. The altercation turned physical when Pagán Cruz told Cáceres Cruz he was under arrest and wrestled him to the ground. During the course of the struggle, Pagán Cruz accidentally shot himself in the leg. The officer then unholstered his gun and shot Cáceres Cruz multiple times at close range as he lay facedown on the ground. After the shooting, Sustache and Díaz de León drove Pagán Cruz to the hospital without notifying Central Command that anyone else at the scene had been wounded.
The initial police report indicated that Pagán Cruz had acted in self-defense, alleging that Cáceres Cruz had resisted arrest and tried to grab the officer’s gun. Shortly after, however, a video taken by a witness on a cell phone surfaced on YouTube and the local media. There was no way to spin what had occurred. The video clearly showed that Cáceres Cruz had neither resisted arrest nor posed any threat to the officers when Pagán Cruz killed him. Even the police superintendent, Pedro Toledo Dávila, had to admit that what the Puerto Rican public had witnessed on the nightly news was an “execution.”
The killing of Miguel Cáceres Cruz, according to the report, serves as an “illustrative example” of the PRPD’s institutional dysfunction: officers engaging in verbal confrontations with civilians; frivolous arrests; excessive use of force; a lack of meaningful supervision and accountability; and the failure of Internal Affairs to investigate matters in an objective and timely manner, if at all. During the course of the DOJ investigation of the PRPD, over 1,500 complaints were filed against officers for unjustified or excessive force and assault. An additional 268 complaints were made between January 2009 and August 2010, after the official investigation ended, based on similar charges.
The DOJ investigation also found that unreasonable force is perhaps most frequently used against protesters in an attempt to silence political dissent. The PRPD indiscriminately uses batons; conducted energy devices (CEDs), such as Tasers; chemical agents; illegal chokeholds; and other forms of unwarranted physical force against protest participants and bystanders who are not violating the law and pose no threat to the officers, others, or themselves. According to the report, the “PRPD’s repeated reliance on indiscriminate and unreasonable force instills fear in individuals and discourages future actions protected by the First Amendment.”7
The DOJ also questioned the routine use of the Tactical Operations Unit to engage crowds and protesters who pose little risk. The Tactical Operations Unit, or Fuerza de Choque, is a quasi-militarized police unit akin to a SWAT unit and has been accused of fostering a “violent subculture” within the police. The report suggests that the deployment of the Fuerza de Choque during peaceful demonstrations is designed to “chill speech” through extreme displays of force.8
While the bulk of the DOJ investigation took place between 2004 and 2008, the examples the report uses to illustrate excessive force as a tool of political suppression all occurred since 2009, under the current administration of conservative governor Luis Fortuño. The report cites three key incidents: the excessive use of force against students on University Avenue in Río Piedras on August 21, 2009, during which police shot tear-gas canisters into an enclosed dormitory courtyard where students were protesting and seriously wounded a student; the brutality unleashed upon university students, union leaders, public employees, and other activists protesting Fortuño, who was attending a fundraiser at the Sheraton Hotel on May 20, 2010; and the event on June 30, 2010, when labor activists, university students, and journalists attempted to gain entrance to proceedings at the Puerto Rican Capitol and were met with unjustified and extreme force.
On September 8, Fortuño stood beside Thomas Pérez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, at a press conference about the report and promised to collaborate with the DOJ in order to reform the PRPD. Nevertheless, he has, for the most part, shirked responsibility for any misconduct that occurred during his tenure as governor.
At the press conference, Fortuño remarked, “Although this predates our administration, we have assumed the responsibility and we have cooperated with the federal authorities. This report discusses deficiencies [in the PRPD] many decades in the making.” When journalists pressed Fortuño to account for the police brutality unleashed during the strikes at UPR, Fortuño said the incidents were beyond the scope of the investigation and not included in the report. This prompted a journalist to correct the governor, pointing out that the events that transpired at UPR do, in fact, appear within the first 10 pages of the report. Fortuño responded by quickly changing the subject.9 At the press conference and in the days that followed, Fortuño continued to reiterate his commitment to police reform, stating that the PRPD had already implemented 110 of the 133 recommendations put forth in the report.
However, given Fortuño’s repeated reliance on police power to quell political protest and facilitate the implementation of his conservative political agenda (as covered in these pages), many doubted the sincerity of his commitment to serious change in the police force.10 It became abundantly clear that this skepticism was justified when Fortuño announced that Marcos Rodríguez Ema, his current chief of staff, would be ensuring the PRPD’s compliance with the DOJ’s recommendations. Activists and civil rights advocates were outraged over Fortuño’s appointment. In December, during the second UPR strike, Rodríguez Ema had made inflammatory remarks about “kicking out” students, protesters, and the leftist professors who “incite them,” in order to make way for the “silent majority” of students who just wanted to study.11 Rodríguez Ema’s remark that he would violently remove (“sacaría a patadas”) protesters from UPR highlights the rampant disregard for civil liberties that characterizes the Fortuño administration’s approach when dealing with political dissent.
It was Rodríguez Ema’s hostile rhetoric and sense of moral righteousness that, in many ways, gave the green light to violently remove students and protesters from UPR’s main campus in Río Piedras, such as occurred following the imposition of the $800 fee hike in January 2011.12 It could also be said that Rodríguez Ema’s comments condoned the actions of the PRPD’s former second-in-command, José A. Rosa Carrasquillo, who kicked UPR student José “Osito” Pérez Reisler in the genitals as he lay defenseless on the floor during the protests at the Sheraton. Rodríguez Ema never apologized for his comments or the violence they justified, nor was he ever censured for his actions by the Fortuño administration. Instead, Fortuño picked him to oversee the PRPD on its path to becoming more accountable to the people of Puerto Rico. As journalist Jesús Dávila rightly notes, the DOJ has placed “radical reforms in right-wing hands,” curtailing any possibility of real transformation in police function, practice, and attitude.13
How possible is true reform on the island—in policing or otherwise—given Puerto Rico’s neocolonial subordination to the United States? This relationship has itself, in many ways, produced the socio-political and economic crises contributing to the explosive informal and illicit economy that, in turn, justifies mano dura, or excessively punitive and violent approaches to policing. Additionally, the federal call for local reform rings hollow given the extensive role that the U.S. government, specifically the FBI and Department of Justice, has historically played in training the PRPD and policing the pro-independence movement both on the island and off. One of the unintended consequences of the DOJ report and its aftermath has thus been the reemergence of a very public discourse and critique of the persistence of neocolonial policing in Puerto Rico, particularly among the Puerto Rican left. Imagining alternatives to the current role of the PRPD has prompted a critical examination of how policing has functioned historically to facilitate and secure U.S. control in Puerto Rico, first as a colonial prize of war and now as a neocolonial commonwealth territory.
María de Lourdes Santiago, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), called the report “profoundly ironic,” noting that the U.S. government, which has long trained the PRPD and persecuted the pro-independence movement on the island, is now castigating local law enforcement for being apt pupils.14 Indeed, the role of the U.S. government, particularly the FBI, in shaping the deeply anti-democratic nature of policing on the island should not be underestimated. During the 1960s, as part of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the bureau created about 135,000 political dossiers on supposed Puerto Rican subversives who were seen as a threat to the national security of the United States. Known locally as carpetas, the files were kept by local police authorities and used to discredit the pro-independence and workers’ movements.
Learned from the FBI, this practice of keeping carpetas remains an informal practice of the PRPD, which forms the basis for harassment and targeted arrests of political dissidents and activists. The carpeta, however, has moved beyond the simple dossier and become increasingly high-tech, as police during the UPR strikes were accused of creating video carpetas with camcorders in order to keep tabs on students and activists for further investigation.15 Police in Puerto Rico, then, have historically collaborated with federal agencies to surveil and suppress individuals and groups that challenge the prevalent political arrangement on the island, particularly Puerto Rico’s political and legal subordination to the United States. This logic of risk assessment still very much shapes the PRPD’s practice.
It also appears that federal U.S. agencies have infiltrated the upper echelons of the PRPD. Three of the last four police superintendents have come to the position through experience with federal agencies rather than rising through the ranks of the PRPD. The current superintendent, Emilio Díaz Colón, is a retired adjutant general in the U.S. National Guard who, during the 1990s, oversaw the Puerto Rico National Guard’s participation in the infamous police and military occupation of Puerto Rico’s public housing complexes in an attempt to curb crime, known as mano dura contra el crimen (iron fist against crime). During the raids on public housing, Díaz Colon worked alongside Pedro Toledo Dávila, a former FBI agent, who served as Puerto Rican police superintendent during the mano dura era from 1993 to 2001 and again from 2005 to 2009. Díaz Colon and Toledo Dávila bookend José Figueroa Sancha’s short tenure as police chief from January 2, 2009, to July 2, 2011.
Figueroa Sancha perhaps best illustrates the impunity of the U.S. government on the island and its collusion with local law enforcement to squash political dissent, especially the pro-independence movement. Figueroa Sancha came to the post with the blood of pro-independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos on his hands. As the FBI’s former second-in-command in Puerto Rico, Figueroa Sancha helped to oversee the ambush and assassination of Ojeda Ríos in his home in Hormigueros, on September 23, 2005 (a date charged with significance, marking the anniversary of the anti-colonial uprising known as El Grito de Lares, which occurred on September 23, 1868).
Figueroa Sancha also participated in the De Diego 444 debacle on February 10, 2006, when FBI agents carried out raids on individuals associated with the independence movement and recklessly pepper-sprayed demonstrators and onlookers, including members of the press who filmed the incident. The DOJ report elides this history of federal U.S. involvement in local police issues, in addition to federal law enforcement agencies’ routine suppression of the First Amendment rights of Puerto Ricans on the island.
Although the report is incredibly important for bringing to light the disturbing, quotidian nature of police violence on the island, it fails to account for a much longer and more complex history of how policing on the island has been, and continues to be, inexorably bound to the maintenance and management of Puerto Rico’s political and legal status in relation to the United States. For real change to take root in the PRPD, a radical transformation in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States would first be necessary. Until the United States and its various agencies are in a position to reckon with the inherent violence of the neocolonial arrangement, they will remain unable to truly confront the problem of police violence.
Marisol LeBrón is a doctoral candidate in the Program in American Studies at New York University. Her dissertation examines the colonial legacies of policing and punitive policy in contemporary Puerto Rico.
Neocolonial Policing in Puerto Rico
1. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Puerto Rico Police Department,” September 5, 2011, 5.
2. Frances Robles, “Justice Department: Puerto Rico Police ‘critically broken,’ ” The Miami Herald, September 8, 2011.
3. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Puerto Rico Police Department,” 13.
4. Ibid., 14.
5. Ibid., 14.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Ibid., 25.
8. Ibid., 26.
9. “Fortuño insiste en que ya se han tomado medidas para enderezar la Policía,” Elnuevodia.com, September 8, 2011.
10. See Rima Brusi, “The University of Puerto Rico: A Testing Ground for the Neoliberal State” NACLA Report on the Americas 44, no. 2 (March/April 2011): 7–10; Yarimar Bonilla and Rafael A. Boglio Martínez, “Puerto Rico in Crisis: Government Workers Battle Neoliberal Reform,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (January/Febraury 2010): 6–8.
11. Maritza Díaz Alcaide, “Marcos Rodríguez Ema dice que sacaría a patadas a los líderes estudiantiles de la UPR,” Primera Hora, December 2, 2010.
12. Maritza Stanchich, “More Violence in Puerto Rico as University Student Fee is Imposed,” The Huffington Post, January 18, 2011.
13. Jesús Dávila, “Puerto Rico: Reformas radicales en manos derechistas,” Centro de Medios Independientes de Puerto Rico, September 11, 2011.
14. “PIP califica de irónico el informe de justicia federal sobre violación de derechos civiles,” independencia.net, September 8, 2011.
15. Stanchich, “More Violence in Puerto Rico.”