Poverty And Police Corruption In Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, or the ‘rich port’ in Spanish, is the poorest American territory with a poverty rate of 44.8%. That is more than three times higher than that in America. 56% of Puerto Rico’s children lived in poverty, the child poverty rate in America is 25%. Out of all U.S. jurisdictions, Puerto Rico has the highest percent of teens not attending school and not working (14.6%).
According to the 2010 Census, the average income per family in Puerto Rico is $26,870. It has a per capita income of $15,203 — that’s less than half the level of the poorest state, Mississippi, where it’s $31,046 — and the official unemployment rate is 14.2 percent as of May 2012. Forty-five percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, and 20 percent of personal income in the commonwealth comes from federal or Puerto Rican public funds. (Source)
On Wednesday, ACLU filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico police, accusing officers of using excessive force and violating civil rights during demonstrations organized by university students and public employees.
The lawsuit alleges that Superintendent Hector Pesquera has encouraged a pattern of violence against demonstrators. It seeks an injunction to force the department to create a policy on how to handle demonstrations and use of force, and to establish a system that makes it easier to file complaints and for authorities to document alleged excessive use of force.
Police violence has been amply documented in a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), titled “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force”.
According to the report, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD)’s rampant violations of human and constitutional rights range from beatings with batons and nightsticks to sexual harassment of female protesters, from the administration of pepper spray at point-blank range and potentially lethal rubber bullets to the indiscriminate use of chemical agents - including tear gas dispersed from helicopters and a highly toxic form of gas not used in the US in 50 years. Other protest management techniques are described in the report as follows:
“Officers have also used painful carotid holds and pressure point techniques intended to cause pain to passively resisting protesters by targeting pressure points on protesters’ carotid arteries, under their jaws, near their necks, their ears, or directly on the eyeballs and eye sockets. Officers also dug their fingers deep underneath students’ ears and above their jaws … Pressure point tactics not only cause excruciating pain but they also block normal blood flow to the brain and can be… fatal if misapplied.”
A 2011 evaluation of the PRPD by the US Department of Justice reasonably concluded that the purpose of such tactics was to intimidate demonstrators rather than to address legitimate threats to public safety. As for other police pastimes not readily associable with the aim of protecting people, the ACLU notes:
“Over a five-year period from 2005 to 2010, over 1,700 police officers were arrested for criminal activity including assault, theft, domestic violence, drug trafficking, and murder. This figure amounts to ten per cent of the police force, or one arrest of a police officer every 30 hours.”
Also on the PRPD resume are incidents such as the death of Jorge Luis Polaco Jimenez, an unarmed black man reportedly “shot seven times in the back while in police custody”; the death of Jose Alberto Vega Jorge, a 22-year-old witness to a Burger King robbery who was shot in the head by police while waiting to give his witness statement; and the fatal shooting of Luis L Perez Feliciano, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran. The police officers reportedly responsible for the shooting of Perez Feliciano were later awarded the Gold Medal of Valour by Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño and the superintendent of the PRPD.
As the ACLU notes, a “ban on all First Amendment activity” was undertaken at the university and any expression of protest was limited “to small designated areas located outside the campus, called ‘free speech zones’”, also surrounded by police. It is safe to assume that parents beaten with nightsticks while attempting to deliver food to students striking against the commodification of education do not consider this sort of educational arrangement as something their kids “need”.
As for disproportionate police-to-resident ratios, the PRPD’s employment of more than 17,000 (the second largest police force in America) officers for a population of 3.7 million is more than twice the national average. However, the expansion of both mainland policing activities and of a reality in which those tasked with the protection of civil rights are often the ones violating them - indicates that Puerto Rican struggles may indeed increasingly “mirror those across America”. (Source)
The ACLU report comes nine months after the Department of Justice released its own scathing report, based on an investigation covering the years between 2004 and 2011 and outlining many of the same problems. “The Puerto Rico police department is broken,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said when the Justice Department report came out, and lawyers at the department began a series of negotiations with the Puerto Rican government to devise a “comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform.”
Puerto Rico’s Police Force has killed 21 civilians in 2010-11. Rather than confront the issue, the administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno has instead pursued a policy of denial. Its lawyers have submitted court filings that called the DOJ report unreliable, flawed and biased. Its previous police superintendent denied its findings outright. And on the day the ACLU report was released, the current superintendent, Hector Pesquera, called its findings “incorrect and irresponsible” and part of a “political agenda.” (Source)