ACLU Investigation Reveals Systematic Pattern of Police Brutality and Abuse in Puerto Rico

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

ACLU Investigation Reveals Systematic Pattern of Police Brutality and Abuse in Puerto Rico

Preliminary Findings Call into Question Government Commitment to First Amendment Protections and Human Rights Standards

SAN JUAN, P.R. - A violent pattern of police misconduct against the citizens of Puerto Rico raises troubling questions about the Puerto Rican government’s commitment to First Amendment protections and human rights standards, according to the initial findings of an in-depth investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a preliminary report made public today in advance of Tuesday’s scheduled visit by President Obama to the U.S. commonwealth, the ACLU charges that the government, and particularly the Puerto Rico Police Department, has systematically sought to violently quash protestors’ constitutionally protected expression and the rights of reporters to cover news stories. The ACLU’s preliminary report also documents numerous unpunished cases of police brutality during the past five years against low-income communities and communities of African and Dominican descent, including the extrajudicial execution of a man who was shot seven times in the back while in police custody and numerous cases of savage attacks by police against unarmed black and Dominican men in public housing projects.

“The violent crackdown on students, labor leaders, journalists and other residents of Puerto Rico by the Puerto Rican police is a blatant violation of their constitutional and human rights and cannot be allowed to continue,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “The severity and scope of the police abuse documented by the ACLU have no place in Puerto Rico or anywhere else in America, and we urge President Obama to raise these important issues with the leadership of Puerto Rico.”

Between March and May, the national office of the ACLU conducted fact-finding human rights research in Puerto Rico to further document allegations of police brutality recorded by the ACLU of Puerto Rico since 2004. The ACLU’s final research findings will be detailed in a full-length report to be released in September.

The ACLU on Friday sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to press Puerto Rican leaders during his scheduled visit to the island Tuesday about the ongoing pattern of police brutality and governmental suppression of First Amendment rights. The ACLU will also raise these serious concerns in full-page ads to be taken out Tuesday in Puerto Rico's largest Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Dia and its only English-language newspaper The Daily Sun. An ad is also running through Tuesday in New York’s El Diario La Prensa, one of the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspapers. A delegation convened by the ACLU travelled to Puerto Rico in May and met with a number of government officials, including the secretary of state, attorney general, police superintendent and legislators from both the majority and the minority parties.
The ACLU’s initial findings are based on over 60 interviews by ACLU human rights researcher Jennifer Turner of university students, union leaders and other citizens who experienced excessive force and police violence during the past five years, as well as journalists who faced police violence and other restrictions when reporting on these incidents.

According to the ACLU’s preliminary findings, the Puerto Rican government activated the riot squad unit and other police units to respond to peaceful protests by University of Puerto Rico students opposed to a new enrollment fee imposed by university administrators. Students were beaten with nightsticks, maced with pepper spray and shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Police have also applied pressure-point techniques on immobilized student protestors, causing pain and, in some instances, unconsciousness.

Union leaders and workers peacefully protesting the mass firing of more than 20,000 public workers also met with brutal police violence and, after the president of the Puerto Rican Senate cut off public access to legislative sessions last June, protestors were beaten, pepper sprayed and tear gassed by the Puerto Rican police. A member of the legislator’s minority party had a ligament in her arm torn by riot squad officers as she was trying to intervene on behalf of five student journalists being beaten by riot squad officers at the entryway of the Capitol.

Journalists attempting to cover these incidents have been subjected to physical assaults by police and faced with myriad government-imposed restrictions, including denial of access to locations such as the Senate chamber.

Dominican immigrants and low-income and Afro-Puerto Ricans subjected to severe police brutality, including lethal force, face serious obstacles to securing justice. They face long delays after filing complaints and abusive officers rarely are held accountable.

A copy of the ACLU’s preliminary findings is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech-human-rights/preliminary-findings-aclu-human-rights-documentation-research-puerto-rico

Additional information can be found at: www.aclu.org/puertorico

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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