News :: Crime

Justice Department Report Blasts Puerto Rico Police

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Thursday Sep 8, 2011
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A Justice Department report that slams Puerto Rico police for widespread abuses of power, inadequate training and endemic corruption also concludes that the agency’s response to hate crimes on the island remains inadequate.

The 116-page report that the DOJ released on Thursday, Sept. 8, stems from an investigation of the Puerto Rico Police Department that began in July 2008. The PRPD is the country’s second largest police department with more than 17,000 officers.

Violent crime on the island increased 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. Violent crime in the United States slightly decreased in 2010, but the FBI’s Violent Crime Index noted that the numbers of murders and non-negligent manslaughters in Puerto Rico rose from 901 to 983 over the same period. 568 murders took place on the island in the first six months of this year--with 101 homicides in June alone.

"A significant number of murders and violent crimes have involved Puerto Rico’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ("LGBT") communities," noted the DOJ report.

The DOJ also noted that the Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s own reports indicate that nobody has been convicted of a bias-motivated crime on the island. Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression were added to Puerto Rico’s hate crimes law in 2002, but activists have long complained that local authorities remain reluctant to apply them.

"PRPD acknowledges a need to improve its handling and investigation of hate crimes, particularly crimes against individuals in the LGBT community," reads the DOJ report. "PRPD should continue to work collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies and the community to thoroughly and timely investigate potential hate crimes."

Eighteen LGBT Puerto Ricans have been murdered since the beginning of 2010. Alejandro Torres Torres, Karlota Gómez Sánchez and Ramón "Moncho" Salgado were found dead within a 72-hour period in early June.

Gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado was stabbed to death before his decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was dumped along a remote roadside in Nov. 2009. Juan José Martínez Matos received a 99-year prison sentence in May 2010 after he pleaded guilty to the gruesome crime that sent shockwaves across Puerto Rico and beyond.

A new law requires the police academy to implement an in-service training curriculum that includes a four-hour course on civil rights and hate crimes. The DOJ report indicates that only 17 percent of PRPD officers completed the course in October and November of last year. And the DOJ further described the department’s overall curriculum as "sorely inadequate."

"PRPD’s 16-hour training schedule did not specify whether communication skills (including the importance of courtesy and respect) and verbal disengagement techniques are part of the curriculum, nor whether the hate crimes course covers cultural diversity and sensitivity issues," reads the DOJ report. "These topics are vital to any continuing education program."

Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force urged President Barack Obama to discuss the ongoing violence against LGBT Puerto Ricans with Gov. Luis Fortuño when he visited the island in June. Serrano and other activists and elected officials of Puerto Rican descent in New York and Chicago have repeatedly blasted Fortuño for his continued silence surrounding these crimes.

"When you have a systematic violation of civil rights, it makes it more difficult for LGBT individuals who face violence and discrimination to report and to trust the police," he said, referring to the DOJ’s report. "This report underscores the importance of proper training to deal with anti-LGBT crimes in Puerto Rico."

Paul Guequierre, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, agreed.

"It is crucial that law enforcement officers everywhere have the training and resources they need to prevent and respond to hate crimes against the LGBT community," he said. "Hate crimes in Puerto Rico must be addressed. We hope PRPD follows DOJ’s recommendations and remedies this situation with the proper training to increase cultural competency."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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