As Puerto Rico Rebuilds, Police Protest Working Conditions
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Three months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, about half the island, more than a million and a half people still lack electric power. And as rebuilding efforts continue, one of the concerns on the island is safety. Police in Puerto Rico have been working under severe conditions. In the months after the hurricane, police reportedly worked seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours at a time. And now thousands of police officers are not showing up for work. They're calling in sick in part to demand unpaid overtime. AP reporter Danica Coto first broke the story. She joins me now from San Juan. Hello, Danica
DANICA COTO: Hello. Thank you for having me.
SUAREZ: How large a force are we talking about here, and how many people aren't showing up for work?
COTO: Well, pretty large. Puerto Rico has one of the largest police departments under U.S. jurisdiction with some 13,600 officers overall. So on a normal day, an average of 550 to 600 officers are absent across the U.S. territory. But recently, more than 2,700 officers on average have been absent every day.
SUAREZ: Are they giving a set explanation for why they're not showing up for work?
COTO: Not a specific explanation. They have been calling in sick. But they are protesting the lack of overtime pay that they are owed following both hurricanes, Irma and Maria, which hit in September, and which government officials blame the delayed payments on a slow reimbursement from FEMA. So overall, police chief Michelle Hernandez, who I recently interviewed, estimates that the government owes police around $35 million overall. In addition, they've already paid them $22 million for the work done post-hurricane.
SUAREZ: You write in your story that the sense of frustration on the part of the officers predates the hurricanes. What was happening before the storm that contributed to what we're seeing now?
COTO: Well, a lot. Police, you know, like many other people in Puerto Rico, have suffered the consequences of what's been an 11-year recession. And this, in turn, has led to a series of austerity measures. So police officers are no longer getting paid for unused sick days, which they were able to do previously. And they've also seen changes to their retirement plan, which was basically their only safety net since they don't receive social security. So for example, in the past, an officer who worked 30 years would receive 65 to 70 percent of their salary. That number has now dropped to between 30 to 35 percent.
SUAREZ: In the chaos that followed the two hurricanes, what's happened to the crime rate in Puerto Rico? Do people feel safe?
COTO: Right now, I would say people are a bit nervous. Now it's the holidays. There's a lot of anger. There's a lot of frustration being built up, especially after the hurricane. More than 660,000 people or customers are without power. And that's more than three months after that hurricane Maria hit. Overall, violent crime is down, but when I spoke to the police chief she said this - she worries that this could change. You know, carjackings have increased. Theft has increased, especially with power generators.
SUAREZ: The police chief of Puerto Rico, Michelle Hernandez, who you mentioned earlier, has suggested that maybe the National Guard could step in in the interim while this back pay issue is sorted out. Is that plausible? Could that work?
COTO: It was a solution that was considered in the police department, but the administration of Governor Ricardo Rossello quickly rejected it this week. You know, officials said that they were on schedule to make more than a $600 million payment just days ago in hopes of avoiding further absences. And in addition, the police department has taken other steps during the holiday season. They expect to activate high-ranking officers as well as other staff as the new year approaches. And they will be awarding no holidays next week to help fill in those gaps.
SUAREZ: That's AP's Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks a lot for joining us.
COTO: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.