SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department and Puerto Rico's government signed an agreement Friday to reform the island's police department, which has long been accused of corruption, illegal killings and civil rights violations.
The agreement resolved a lawsuit that U.S. authorities also filed Friday, more than a year after federal prosecutors issued a scathing report on the U.S. territory's police department, which is the second-largest force in the U.S. with more than 17,000 officers.
"The challenges that we identified in the report were many years in the making," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a phone interview. "Solving the problem is going to take many years. I think it can get done, but it's hard work."
Gov. Luis Fortuno said the agreement will make for a safer Puerto Rico, an island of 4 million people that reported a record 1,117 homicides last year.
"Today we establish the cornerstones for a fresh start with Puerto Rico's police," he said. "There is still a lot of work to be done, but we have begun a far-reaching reform that the police department needed decades ago."
Fortuno said both parties have asked that a judge temporarily suspend proceedings until April to give the island's incoming government time to evaluate and possibly modify the agreement if needed.
The lawsuit accused police of discrimination, using excessive force and conducting unlawful searches and seizures.
"As a result of these acts, hundreds of residents of Puerto Rico suffer serious or fatal injuries, are subjected to traumatic and unjustified searches and seizures of their persons, homes, and automobiles, and are discouraged from engaging in free speech acts," the lawsuit stated.
It noted Puerto Ricans filed more than 1,500 complaints against police officers for unjustified or excessive force from 2004 to 2008.
Authorities also arrested more than 1,700 police officers on charges including murder, rape, drug trafficking, assault and theft from January 2005 to November 2010.
"This conduct is ongoing," the lawsuit said.
It said police officers work without supervision or effective policy guidance, adding that supervisors are often directly involved in illegal activities. Federal prosecutors said the department's has no system to deal with officers accused of improper or unlawful conduct.
The lawsuit highlighted the case of Miguel Caceres, an unarmed man who was shot at least three times, once in the head, by police in a 2007 killing captured on video.
Other cases noted included one in which a police officer was accused of abandoning a suspect behind a shopping mall after beating him unconscious and another in which a group of plainclothes officers beat a suspect and dragged him face down on the pavement.
The 106-page agreement calls on the police department to evaluate how it uses its resources and officers, to revise many of its policies and procedures and provide better training for officers.
The department also is expected to create a merit-based promotion system, using written exams as part of a selection process through the rank of captain, and to prohibit specialized tactical units from doing general patrol and police work.
The agreement also orders the department to create a system to collect information on every police officer, including all complaints, killings and uses of force.
Once a judge approves the agreement, a monitor is expected to file an evaluation on the department every six months for the first three years. In five years, the monitor will evaluate the police department to see whether any changes have taken place, and whether the agreement should be modified.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomed Friday's announcement, saying it was long-awaited.
"We're very pleased that the Justice Department has taken concrete action to end the unconscionable abuse Puerto Ricans have suffered at the hands of their own police force," he said. "For years the Puerto Rico Police Department has resisted reform. This agreement provides a roadmap for long-overdue reforms."