Saturday, September 10, 2011

Justice Department Investigation of Puerto Rico Police Almost Makes NOPD Look Good

In a report released Thursday, US Justice Department investigators found the Puerto Rico Police Department may create more crime than it prevents. More than 1,709 officers have been arrested over the past five years for offenses “ranging from simple assault and theft to domestic violence, drug trafficking and murder.” According to New York Times coverage of the investigation:
In a 116-page report...the civil rights division of the Justice Department accused the Puerto Rico Police Department of systematically “using force, including deadly force, when no force or lesser force was called for,” unnecessarily injuring hundreds of people and killing “numerous others.”

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, says the 17,000-officer force routinely conducts illegal searches and seizures without warrants. It accuses the force of a pattern of attacking nonviolent protesters and journalists in a manner “designed to suppress the exercise of protected First Amendment rights.”

And it says investigators “uncovered troubling evidence” that law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico appear to routinely discriminate against people of Dominican descent and “fail to adequately police sex assault and domestic violence” cases — including spousal abuse by fellow officers.

“Unfortunately,” the report found, “far too many P.R.P.D. officers have broken their oath to uphold the rule of law, as they have been responsible for acts of crime and corruption and have routinely violated the constitutional rights of the residents of Puerto Rico.”
The report "condemns nearly every aspect of the force," according to the New York Times. "Its hiring and training practices, the way it assigns and promotes officers, and its policies governing officer behavior and accountability for misconduct. The report recommends 133 remedial measures that would amount to a sweeping intervention."

This is one of 17 investigations of local police departments launched by the DOJ. The New Orleans investigations have been among the most prominent, but as other interventions heat up, look for more shocking revelations. The actions of a newly-empowered Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department represent perhaps the greatest break with Bush Administration policies. But criminal justice activists and abolitionists have argued over the ultimate effects - will these investigations lead to positive changes in communities hard hit by police violence? Will they open opportunities to build alternatives to criminalization? Or will they serve as reforms that ultimately reinforce and justify police departments?

Much of that may depend on how activists on the ground respond to these investigations, and the ways in which they use the opportunities presented by the investigations to push for alternatives. In this respect, the process that New Orleans community members have been through, of creating a People's Consent Decree, has set an important precedent. But reforms of these departments are not enough. As the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance has pointed out, "We know that more police and prisons will not make our communities safer. Instead, we know that things like food, housing, and freedom are what creates lasting safety."

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