Lt. Gov. Of Puerto Rico Pushes For Police Reform

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The Puerto Rico Police Department has been accused of a pattern of unconstitutional activities and civil rights abuses. The accusations come after an investigation the U.S. Department of Justice launched in 2008. The DOJ issued a report last week citing excessive and deadly use of force, unlawful searches and seizures and discrimination, among other issues. Host Michel Martin and Lieutenant Governor of Puerto Rico Kenneth McClintock discuss the report and the government's responses.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, to a story that has probably received far less attention than it would have, had it occurred in another major American locale. It's about the police department in Puerto Rico. It's the country's second largest department after New York City's.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report accusing the 17,000 member force of serious misconduct, including the unnecessary use of force against civilians, which has resulted in death and serious injury, a pattern of illegal searches and seizures that violate the Constitution, a record both of ignoring sex crimes against women in general and ignoring domestic violence committed by its own officers, and of routinely discriminating against people of Dominican descent.

All of this was described in a report by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division following a lengthy investigation. That investigation followed one by the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico.

In a few minutes, we will hear from ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, but first, we are turning to the lieutenant governor of Puerto Rico, Kenneth McClintock. He has served in that post since 2009 and also serves as secretary of state.

Lieutenant Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KENNETH MCCLINTOCK: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, the governor has issued a statement outlining reform efforts that his administration is willing to undertake, so I take it that you and the governor agree that there is a problem here. I'd just like to ask you to characterize of how serious a problem do you think this is.

MCCLINTOCK: Well, it is a significant problem and because of that, over a year ago, Governor Fortuno appointed a former associate justice of Puerto Rico Supreme Court to monitor the police department and we submitted to Attorney General Eric Holder last March an action plan that addresses 110 of the 133 findings that the report last week recognized.

So we're on the same track. We're in the same wavelength. We're willing to do anything that has to be done to correct decades old problems that have been developing in the police department.

MARTIN: You know, the American Civil Liberties Union made some of these same allegations or raised these questions years before DOJ did. I'd just like to ask you to respond to this statement by their human rights researcher, Jennifer Turner, about the federal investigation. She was quoted by the news organization the Associated Press. She says, these findings are incredibly detailed. Unfortunately, it took the intervention of the Department of Justice to convince the police department that it needed to make real changes. Do you think that that's true? And why is that, if indeed it is true?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, it's part of Puerto Rico's culture, unfortunately, that sometimes we don't pay attention to ourselves and that somebody has to come from the federal government to remind us of things that should be obvious and have to be corrected and have to be dealt with.

We have been, during the past two years, dealing with these problems. Last March, I met with Anthony Romero and with a delegation of media celebrities that accompanied him to Puerto Rico. We had a very fruitful two hour meeting in my office with other high level members of our Cabinet, the attorney general of Puerto Rico and a few others. And I put myself at their disposal to serve as the contact person with the government of Puerto Rico. Haven't heard from them again since then.

MARTIN: Forgive me. I'm sorry. You said you haven't heard from them again. Who is them?

MCCLINTOCK: ACLU.

MARTIN: Okay.

MCCLINTOCK: But we did have a very good meeting in March.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you about some of the findings in the report that are - I mean, all of the findings in the report are disturbing, whether they're the civil rights violations, the use of unnecessary force. I mean, you could pick just any one of a number of things to talk about.

But I did want to ask about the whole question of the domestic violence, which the report says have not been taken seriously, including a number of incidents where officers killed spouses or girlfriends with their own service revolvers, even after it had been brought to their attention that there were domestic violence allegations against these individuals.

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah. One of the problems we discovered that exists in the police department is that there was not a clear process of reporting problems that individual police agents may be having, whether they're domestic problems, financial problems, criminality problems, even, and ethics problems.

So in that sense, we're dealing with how to improve dramatically the reporting within the department to being able to have an early warning system that will allow us to engage police officers that can be helped and rehabilitated and to deal with those that can't be rehabilitated and separate them from the force.

Now, in that sense, it is not only the governor that has said that we've inherited some of these problems. Even Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general, when he spoke last week, was rather direct also in saying that - and I quote, "the vast majority of problems we identified have existed for many years, long before the current administration."

So we are not responsible for what we found, but we have the responsibility and the power to start correcting the things that exist in the police department. And that's exactly what we're doing. So the governor is very engaged in this.

MARTIN: You know, Lieutenant Governor, Puerto Rico is also battling - I don't know if you agree with my characterization - a significant crime problem. For example, there were nearly 800 people reported killed so far this year compared with 675 in the same period last year. On an island with a population of four million people...

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...it's been the second worst year for homicides, you know, ever. Why do you think that is? And do you feel that the problems with the police department are perhaps a contributing factor? And the reason I mention this is that this is contrast with many major American cities on the mainland, where the crime rate actually has been declining.

MCCLINTOCK: It has been declining. Yeah. This has very little to do with the problems that DOJ addressed in the report. And that doesn't mean that we don't have to address the report. Yes, we do. There are very serious problems that have to be addressed.

The main reason why you have an increase in the murder rate - not so in the other type one crimes, which are actually going down and have been going down for a couple of years - is because the federal government - every time that a governor a U.S. senator or a congressman from the Southwest complains about something in the border with Mexico, they don't create new positions. They don't assign more resources. They just take away those resources and the personnel that they need from other parts of the nation.

And one of the problems that we've had is that, as the border in Mexico has been strengthened, more drug trafficking is coming into the U.S. through the Caribbean because Puerto Rico is a point where the U.S. becomes a Caribbean nation.

And we have less Coast Guard resources, less CDP, ICE, DEA resources than we've had in the past. So I'm not blaming the federal government, but if we had more cooperation by the federal government in interdicting drugs in the Caribbean, the increased amount of drugs that are coming in because you've been closing down the Mexican border and making it more difficult for drug trafficking in that part of the nation, then the murder rate would go down because many of these murders are drug-related.

MARTIN: All right. Finally, Lieutenant Governor, how long do you think it will take to restore confidence in Puerto Rico's police department?

MCCLINTOCK: I've heard the term 15 years at a federal level, but we really feel uncomfortable with that amount of time. You know, we really have to get this moving much faster than that. And certainly, there are some changes that you can do in a matter of months. Some take years, but you really have to get started. I mean, we can't be waiting 15 years to get this fixed up.

MARTIN: Kenneth McClintock is the Lieutenant Governor of Puerto Rico. He joined us by phone from his office in San Juan. Lieutenant Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCCLINTOCK: Thank you very much.

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