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DOJ Accuses Puerto Rico Police Of Civil Rights Abuses

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The Puerto Rico Police Department has 17,000 officers. That makes it the second biggest force in the US behind New York City, but it's also one of the most troubled.

After a three-year investigation, the Justice Department has found that Puerto Rico police routinely violate people's civil rights by beating suspects and planting evidence.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has that story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Justice Department investigators who have been digging into problems with the police force in Puerto Rico say they hardly know where to begin. Tom Perez leads the Civil Rights Division.

THOMAS PEREZ: The breadth and depth of challenges confronting this department is very, very wide. The department has just about every problem in the book.

JOHNSON: Investigators made three major findings. First, police in Puerto Rico use unreasonable force to arrest people, many of whom put up no resistance. Second, Perez says...

PEREZ: Officers all too frequently plant evidence during searches, rely on excessive force and intimidation as search aids, and proceed with searches even when knowing that the address or identity of the individual or some other pertinent information is simply incorrect.

JOHNSON: Finally, police on the island often violate the First Amendment rights of protestors, beating demonstrators with batons and spraying chemicals on crowds.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to the problem. Violent crime rates are soaring. Seven hundred eighty-six murders so far this year, most authorities say because of drug trafficking.

Jennifer Turner of the American Civil Liberties Union has visited the island several times to look into police brutality. All too often, she says, that's a law enforcement strategy.

JENNIFER TURNER: The Department of Justice investigation said they interviewed one police officer who distressingly said that the way that they can combat the murder rate is by showing force and going into public housing projects and low-income communities and beating people up.

JOHNSON: Federal authorities say the police force doesn't have enough training, no guidelines for when police can use their weapons, none of supervision and little or no response to complaints. Again, Jennifer Turner.

TURNER: The police department is not interested in reform.

JOHNSON: Kenneth McClintock is the Secretary of State in Puerto Rico. He begs to differ. McClintock says the government's working with limited resources, but he says it's already made some important changes.

KENNETH MCCLINTOCK: Hiring people with more education, improving the police academy education that they receive, improving the supervision that they receive, have better reporting of incidents within the police department.

JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder speaking to NPR's TELL ME MORE says the department may have to rebuild from the ground up.

ERIC HOLDER: So it's going to involve, I think, a lot of work that we are prepared to do and we hope we'll have the cooperation of the local authorities in Puerto Rico.

JOHNSON: Holder says the Justice Department is prepared to sue and get a judge involved if they can't reach an agreement any other way.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.