Last month, the Department of Justice released a scathing 116-page report that documented the brutality and corruption within Puerto Rico’s police force, as well as its deficient training and recruitment procedures. The report, four years in the making, found that the police had engaged in pervasive civil rights violations with impunity. Thomas Perez, assistant district attorney for civil rights, put it simply: “The Puerto Rico Police Department is broken.”
In response, the ruling New Progressive Party, which favors making Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union, insists that it began the process of police reform in the summer of 2010, and had already addressed 100 of the 113 recommendations made by the Justice Department. Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno said that his administration is “committed to continuing implementing a comprehensive, sustainable reform.”
But many civil rights advocates in Puerto Rico, as well as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., feel that the governor is doing too little, too late. Gutierrez pointed out a week that the governor appointed his chief of staff, Marcos Rodriguez Ema, who has been one of the strongest advocates of police force against student and union protestors, as the point person to implement the reform plan.
Fortuno has argued that police corruption and violence predated his administration. While this is true — Puerto Rican police has long abused members of the island’s poor, black and Dominican communities — the escalation of violence under his government has drawn wide attention. One demonstration in June 2010, at the island’s Capitol building, resulted in indiscriminate beatings of protestors as well as the use of pepper spray and a gas that is banned in most states of the union.
With strong ties to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, Fortuno took office in 2009 and immediately instituted austerity measures that included cutting about 20,000 federal jobs, which set off massive union protests. The following year, the pro-Fortuno board of directors of the island’s largest university increased tuition costs by $800 a semester. The students, many of them the children of laid-off government workers, also took to the streets.
The governor followed a union-busting strategy similar to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but while that governor tolerated a weeklong sit-in protest in Madison, Fortuno had his police beat students, teachers, children and the elderly on the steps of his own capitol building.
While Fortuno claims to be in accord with the need for reform, the actions of his government do not show a credible commitment. A lawyer for the Puerto Rico Justice Department recently argued that the U.S. attorney general’s report was “unreliable, flawed, and biased.” And Fortuno’s superintendent of police has expressed doubt that the department had the economic means to carry out reforms.
It’s increasingly clear that the Fortuno government is resorting to stalling tactics in the unrealistic hope that the sting of the report will fade and the impetus for serious reform will die out. That is why the U.S. Justice Department should have little patience with his administration and must take legal action to force the police to reform.
The Puerto Rican people need Washington’s backing now.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and is the author of “Living in Spanglish.” He can be reached at email@example.com.