U.S. government report slams Puerto Rico police

Thu Sep 8, 2011 1:07pm EDT

Related Topics

* Report based on U.S. Justice Department investigation

* Police use "excessive" and "unreasonable" force - report

* U.S. territory grappling with surge in violent crime

SAN JUAN, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Puerto Rico's police regularly use excessive force, conduct illegal searches and commit other rights violations while failing to curb drug-fueled crime in the U.S. Caribbean territory, the U.S. Justice Department said in a report released on Thursday.

The strongly worded, 116-page report offers sharp criticism of the second-largest police force in the United States. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has some 17,000 police officers.

The island is struggling to control soaring crime which authorities say is tied to the illegal drug trade, with killings on pace to set a record this year.

Law enforcement officials say Puerto Rico is a favored trafficking route because of its status as a U.S. territory.

"Puerto Rico officials maintain that drug trafficking and social deterioration are fueling the wave of violent crime," the report said. "However, increasing crime cannot be used to justify continued civil rights violations or the failure to implement meaningful reforms."

The report said it found police had engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, at times using "unreasonable" and "excessive" force.

"The Puerto Rico Police Department has deep and profound problems," said Thomas Perez, director of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Police have also failed to investigate sex crimes and domestic violence and frequently discriminate against Puerto Rico's sizable community of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the report said.

Information and data systems are inadequate, the report said, hampering the police department's ability to fight crime and keep track of violations by officers.

"The report confirms a breathtaking level of violence and corruption," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has compiled reports of abuses by the Puerto Rican police.

The Justice Department investigation was launched after a police officer was caught on videotape shooting an unarmed man and several other officers were arrested on charges of framing suspects.

A rise in corruption cases involving officers has also tarnished the image of the police. More than 1,700 officers were arrested on corruption charges between 2005 and 2010.

Frustrated by the force's inability to curb crime, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno fired the island's top police official in July. [ID:nN1E76104K]

Fortuno told reporters he agreed with the report's findings, adding he had already moved to implement many of the reforms it recommends.

"We recognize our failings. We are training the police to respond to the problems shown in the report," he said. (Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Editing by Kevin Gray and John O'Callaghan)

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