Justice Denied In Puerto Rico, Says ACLU Chief

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Host Michel Martin continues the conversation surrounding the Puerto Rico Police Department. The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a report accusing the police of violating the constitution and using excessive — sometimes fatal — force against civilians. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union conducted its own investigation, finding similar allegations of police brutality in Puerto Rico. Host Michel Martin speaks with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

As you just heard, we've been speaking with the Lieutenant Governor of Puerto Rico, Kenneth McClintock, about a report issued by the Department of Justice last week that details what it describes as a pattern of serious misconduct by members of the police department of Puerto Rico.

But years before the Department of Justice report, in 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico conducted its own investigation and detailed similar abuses. Then this year, that organization's national office documented additional allegations of police brutality.

So we thought it was appropriate to check in with Anthony Romero, who is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU.

He's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

ANTHONY ROMERO: My pleasure, Michel. Good to hear your voice.

MARTIN: I should mention that we asked the Lieutenant Governor of Puerto Rico if he'd like to join the conversation with you. He declined. I thought that was important to put on the record. So it's our policy to give the last word to the person who agreed to speak to everyone in the conversation.

So you just heard my conversation with Lieutenant Governor Kenneth McClintock. I just wanted to ask your response. I think his argument is that these abuses predated his and Governor Luis Fortuno's administration and that they are making aggressive efforts to address them.

ROMERO: Well, he's right in the first part. I don't agree with him on the second part. And let's first say that I was heartened to hear Lieutenant Governor McClintock talk today about the significant problems. You asked him if they were serious and then he came back with the word significant. I think adjectives are important.

But the fact that he admitted that there was even a significant problem was a stark departure from the meeting I had with him in March that he referenced in the interview with you. It was remarkable. I was in his office for two hours. I met the monitor they put in charge of the police department.

We were peppering them with questions and the response I got, both a letter that he gave me in person that day - you can find it on our website - told us that, if the ACLU is truly interested in civil rights violations, we ought to investigate the civil rights violations of those students and faculty and administrators who are unable to attend the university. And it was as if we were speaking different languages.

MARTIN: You're speaking specifically about the strike, the month-long strike, by students and faculty at the University of Puerto Rico?

ROMERO: Well, we were raising with him the fact that the excessive use of force with students was particularly problematic and that it was endemic and there was a systemic problem within the police department.

He came back in saying, well, if you really want to investigate civil rights violations, you should look into the civil rights violations of students who can't go to class. And it was - they were not on point.

Of course, we want to retain the university open, but not by any means necessary. And frankly, I do not agree with the argument that Puerto Rico's culture is so entrenched that we don't listen to things unless it comes from the outside. As someone whose family comes from Puerto Rico, I reject that.

What I do agree with, though, is that the culture of police departments that are abusive are entrenched everywhere - New York City Police Department, the LA Police Department, the New Orleans Police Department. It's not Puerto Rican culture. It's police culture and it's the culture of impunity of government officials who don't want to hold their police departments accountable.

MARTIN: That was going to be my next question is what do you think is the most significant factor contributing to these circumstances that are outlined in both the ACLU report and the Department of Justice report?

ROMERO: So to be clear, he's absolutely right in the fact that the problems existed before Governor Fortuno took office. You know, the police abuse and brutality on low income people, the police brutality on Dominicans, the police brutality on other immigrant populations. And that's why, when we did our research, we purposely went back five years because we didn't only want to focus on the problems under Governor Fortuno.

We're nonpartisan, nonpolitical. We want to point the finger, not at a political party, but at the systemic problems.

It is also true, however, that these problems that were once relegated to the most marginal of groups, Dominicans, low income people, burst out into mainstream middle class Puerto Rico. When they started using these same police tactics with labor leaders who were protesting the budget cuts, when they use excessive use of force on University of Puerto Rico students who are best and brightest, when they were impeding the ability of journalists to photograph and to film the abuse of the police in these demonstrations and rallies, that took it to a whole other level. That was the tipping point.

MARTIN: The final question I have for you is - well, there are two questions. One is the governor has put forward his reform plan. I assume you've evaluated the plan. Are there any steps within that plan that you think will make a difference? And secondly, what is the next step that people who are interested and concerned about this should look to to see whether these reform efforts are proceeding apace?

ROMERO: Well, you know, I think, frankly, it's too little, too late. And justice delayed is justice denied for four million American citizens in Puerto Rico. And frankly, the government of Puerto Rico and the governor, Governor Fortuno, had ample opportunity to fix this when he came into office.

The investigation was launched in 2008. To say, oh, now, give me several more years to fix this on my own watch, is frankly asking for too much. The breaking point has already been reached and, frankly, the Justice Department needs to be as vigorous in kicking their tires.

MARTIN: why would we file a complaint form? We know they're not going to follow up.

It's a level of hostility that the government and the police department have had to these concerns that, frankly, the only way to fix it is by having someone else other than the police department or the Puerto Rican government fix it.

MARTIN: Anthony Romero is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Mr. Romero, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROMERO: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: If you'd like to read the full reports from the Department of Justice and the ACLU that we've been discussing in this program, we'll have links to them on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. We'll also have a complete copy of Governor Fortuno's reform plan.

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