Policing is the Crisis

Even as a dwindling police force in Puerto Rico raises concerns over increasing violence, marginalized communities better served by alternative methods of violence and crime reduction are still vulnerable to state violence.

May 15, 2019

Municipal Police of Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Lee Cohen/Flickr)

In the year and a half after the passage of Hurricane María, much has been written about Puerto Ricans’ feelings of insecurity and concern over rising rates of crime. Immediately following the storm, in December 2017 and January 2018, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) saw an epidemic of “Blue Flu,” with thousands of police officers calling out sick on a daily basis in protest over terrible pay and conditions. The Blue Flu sick out, which was effectively a huelga de brazos caídos, exacerbated the already dwindling numbers of police out on the streets. Impacted like many other Puerto Ricans by the financial crisis, hundreds of police officers have been leaving the archipelago to take positions throughout the United States. For instance, in 2018, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) cited one officer’s estimate that the Baltimore Police Department employed approximately 200 Puerto Rican officers. Following Hurricane María and the botched recovery efforts, one can safely assume that other departments’ ranks are similarly swollen with disaffected police fleeing the situation in the archipelago.

One year after the PRPD’s huelga de brazos caídos, U.S. and Puerto Rican media outlets ran stories that proclaimed that the archipelago was confronting a “security crisis.” The declaration was initially made by FBI special agent Douglas Leff in response to increasing frequency of violent acts, including killings, that were taking place in broad daylight in very public spaces. According to Leff, “When a citizen cannot walk the neighborhood without fearing a bullet, there is a security crisis.” Leff told El Nuevo Día that the FBI would be requesting more personnel and resources in order confront Puerto Rico’s security crisis, presumably because the PRPD alone could not tackle these increasingly brazen acts of violence.

Taken together, this all seems to suggest that policing is in crisis—that the formal mechanisms of crime management and control are failing and that the state’s security apparatus is increasingly absent in people’s everyday lives. This crisis in policing, in turn, contributes to violence, crime, and fear for many Puerto Ricans. One could argue, however, that despite dwindling numbers, the police are just as present in the everyday lives of a variety of citizens and non-citizens and are present primarily as a repressive force. In that sense, declarations of a security crisis notwithstanding, not much seems to have changed between the police and the people following Hurricane María. Pushing against the crisis discourse being promoted by the state, I would argue, building from the crucial work of activists on the ground in Puerto Rico, that policing isn’t in crisis. Rather, it is the police and their presence, as opposed to their absence, that has been and remains an instigator of crisis scenarios for many people living in Puerto Rico.

More Police, More Violence

To begin, it is worth stressing that there is no correlation between more police and less crime. Even Héctor Pesquera, the Secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, has said as much. As Pesquera told the CPI: “Is it fair to say that more police presence would prevent murders? No. When we had 17,000 officers in 2012 there were 1600 murders that year. It’s got nothing to do with it.” Over the past three decades, Puerto Rico has had one of the largest police forces under U.S. jurisdiction. Indeed, at its height, the PRPD was the second-largest department in the U.S. outnumbered only by the New York Police Department (NYPD). During this same time, Puerto Rico has also had one of the highest homicide rates despite its large police force. More police did not keep thousands of Puerto Ricans from losing their lives to violence over the past thirty years.

In my own research, I have documented debates within the Sila María Calderón administration about dramatically reducing the size of the PRPD from 18,500 officers to approximately 12,000 officers through attrition and a temporary moratorium on recruitment efforts. When confronted with a rise in crime rates midway through her term, however, Calderón decided to change course and maintain the PRPD’s high numbers fearing criticism that she was soft on crime would damage the image of the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, PPD). This has been a consistent pattern among Puerto Rico’s elected officials whether PPD or the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, PNP). There is a tacit acknowledgement that more police do not reduce crime but signal instead a refusal to reduce the size of the PRPD or pursue alternative strategies of crime and violence reduction that do not center the police. The state’s desire to cling to a bloated and largely ineffective police force is what has led to the security crisis that does exist in Puerto Rico, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Activists in Puerto Rico have been challenging the facile notion that more police will make the streets safer and reduce the forms of harm that people are dealing with in their communities. Piercing the code of silence around police violence, Kilómetro 0 has been diligently tracking instances when police use excessive and deadly force against civilians. This year has seen a troubling spike in police officers deploying excessive and deadly force in the line of duty. In February, the police killed Anthony Maldonado Avilés, a 32-year old man from Jayuya who was acting erratically and brandishing a machete. On March 11, police shot Jorge Cordero Colón, a mental health patient from Maricao as he was in the midst of crisis. According to available information, Kilómetro 0 has documented four police killings of civilians so far this year and many more wounded during interactions with police. In this sense, the police are doing a poor job at keeping Puerto Ricans safe, especially those who come from vulnerable communities or those who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Indeed, the police seem to compound violence when called to respond to moments of crisis or incidents with the potential to escalate into violence.

The recent protests by feminists demanding an end to violence against women and gender non-conforming people have made this point explicit: the police themselves are often key instigators of violence. Police “protection” is literally harming and killing people. Activists working to end the femicides and other forms of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico point out that the police are not only ineffective, but are often complicit in a myriad of ways in perpetuating practices and logics that harm women and other vulnerable populations. Feminist activists have pointed our attention to numerous examples of the ways that the police facilitate and enact violence against women; from the fact that police don’t take women seriously when they report experiencing violence, to the fact that the PRPD is home to a staggering number of domestic abusers and sexual harassers, to the fact the police recently pepper sprayed, pushed, and hit feminists peacefully protesting outside of the Fortaleza. This is the actual security crisis affecting women and gender non-conforming people in Puerto Rico who often cannot count on the “protection” of the police when they experience violence, and for whom the violence they experience may come at the very hands of a police officer.

Alternatives to Policing

This raises the question: if the police are themselves perpetrators and enablers of harm in people’s lives, particularly those who find themselves on the margins due to race, class, citizenship status, gender, sexuality, and spatial location, then what is to be done to address the very real forms of violence that exist in our communities and the insecurity and fear that they breed? The answer, I believe, is that we must work to find alternatives to policing as we attempt to address the crises facing our communities. If we want to truly reduce violence in our communities, then we need to take seriously the police’s role in perpetrating that violence and start to think beyond policing. The rise of a global abolitionist movement aimed at transforming our world in a way that renders police, prisons, and border enforcement obsolete provides us with guidance on how to create safer, more secure, and, most importantly, more just communities. But one doesn’t need to look outside of Puerto Rico for inspiration. One need only look to the incredible success of Taller Salud’s Acuerdo de Paz violence prevention program, which contributed to a remarkable decrease in violence in Loíza over the course of its pilot program.

In many ways, what contributed to the success of the Acuerdo de Paz program was its insistence on decentering the role of the police in addressing harm and replacing it with systems of community accountability. Recognizing that much of the “policework” that takes place in Loíza involves race and class-based discrimination and violence against residents, Acuerdo de Paz staffers committed themselves to the slow and on-going work of changing attitudes around violence and masculinity in order to reduce gang violence in the areas. Additionally, Acuerdo de Paz provided loiceños with concrete alternatives to calling the police during moments of conflict, focusing instead on building a community toolkit based in mediation and communication aimed at addressing and reducing the various forms of harm that individuals enact on one another. As the financial crisis deepened, it became increasingly difficult for Taller Salud to secure funding for the Acuerdo de Paz program despite evidence that suggested that model was achieving success in reducing community violence. Rather than fund a program with the potential to strengthen the local community and create long-lasting safety, the state will continue to send police into Loíza’s vulnerable communities who will racially profile residents, harass public housing youth, dole out macanazos, and fracture families through arrest and incarceration. The outcome is that the state will continue to create rather that respond to an existing security crisis within vulnerable communities.

As Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, executive director of Proyecto Matria notes, “When a woman has to go to the police, it’s because society has already failed, and that’s something we have to be very clear about. The justice system is not a system for the prevention of violence. It isn’t the police who prevent violence. The police intervene and investigate, but it is the community that prevents [violence].” Feminists in Puerto Rico are leading the way in not only identifying the actual forms of insecurity that people face, but they’re also challenging us to think about how to build community capacities that move us beyond the thin veneer of safety offered by the police in order to actually alleviate that insecurity in a lasting and meaningful way. If the state is actually concerned about addressing what security crisis may exist in Puerto Rico, then they should take heed.

This article originally appeared in 80grados on May 10 2019. It is republished here by permission.

Marisol LeBrón is Assistant Professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to arriving at UT, Dr. LeBrón was an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Dickinson College and a Postdoctoral Associate in Latino/a Studies in the Global South at Duke University. Dr. LeBrón received her PhD in American Studies from New York University and her bachelor's degree in Comparative American Studies and Latin American Studies from Oberlin College. An interdisciplinary scholar, Dr. LeBrón’s research and teaching focus on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest. Her book, Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019), examines the growth of punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico. Dr. LeBrón has published her research in a variety of venues including Radical History Review, Journal of Urban History, Souls: A Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, NACLA Report on the Americas, and the edited volume Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Dr. LeBrón’s next project, tentatively titled Shared Geographies of Resistance: Puerto Ricans and the Uses of Solidarity, explores the role of Puerto Rican activists in international radical politics and freedom struggles over the course of the twentieth century. Drawing from rich archival data, this project will document how Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and in the diaspora have connected their struggles against U.S. colonial rule with other struggles against colonialism, racism, and military violence taking place around the globe.

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