January 9, 2018 / 9:37 PM / a year ago

Puerto Rico police chief says asked to resign by governor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The head of Puerto Rico’s police was asked to step down from her post by the governor of the U.S. territory, she told Reuters, as the island’s authorities struggle to cope with the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Maria.

Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the resignation of Commissioner Michelle Hernandez de Fraley on Monday. But that was at the request of Rossello, Hernandez said.

    “I did not resign; I was asked to resign by the governor,” Hernandez told Reuters in an email. She did not elaborate, other than to say that it was effective immediately, and did not respond to additional questions. 

    A spokesman for Rossello declined to comment. 

    Hernandez’s departure follows mounting frustration from police unions in Puerto Rico over delays in receiving overtime pay, reflected in huge spikes in absenteeism. 

    Police have been working more overtime than usual since Hurricane Maria smashed the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, killing dozens and knocking out power to all 3.5 million residents. Power has still not been fully restored.

    In recent weeks, more than 2,500 police officers a day were calling in sick, Hernandez had said on local media. That equates to some 20 percent of the island’s total police force.

The dip in policing may have contributed to a crime rise since around late December, according to data and anecdotal evidence.

That could be another headache for Puerto Rico, which is in desperate need of investment as it negotiates both its worst disaster in 90 years and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The island has some $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt, and its bond prices have cratered since the storm, in some cases to below 20 cents on the dollar.

In the first week of 2018, Puerto Rico saw 23 murders, more than double the 9 recorded in the same period last year, according to Karixia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety (DPS). 

    Douglas Leff, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Juan field office, told Reuters in an interview that criminals in one rural town recently stole a backhoe, then used it to break into numerous businesses.

“The consensus is that this brazen crime was pulled off because of the absence of police on the streets,” Leff said.

    Although crime has long been relatively high in Puerto Rico, murders had fallen in 2017, according to DPS data. The island finished the year with 679 killings, slightly down from 700 in 2016, the data showed.

Hernandez, a former military officer, was the first woman to lead Puerto Rico’s police force.

    Rossello said he had designated Lieutenant Colonel Henry Escalera as interim Commissioner while the administration searched for a replacement. 

    Rossello’s office said it had also asked for the resignation of Puerto Rico’s tourism minister, Jose Izquierdo, due to a “loss of trust” in the director.

Reporting By Nick Brown; Editing by Daniel Bases and Rosalba O'Brien

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