SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rico's police force is ruled by "unrestrained abuse and brutality" and has failed to investigate and prosecute sexual assault and domestic violence in the U.S. territory, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report released on Tuesday.
According to the report "Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico's Outlaw Police Force," the 17,000-member police force routinely covers up complaints lodged against members, lacks procedures to monitor and investigate abuse complaints and has inadequate systems to train, supervise and discipline officers.
For example, in one case, an officer who had been arrested eight times and who held the local police chief hostage at gunpoint was reinstated, and went on to fatally shoot an unarmed teenager, the ACLU said.
In another, an officer who was the subject of seven disciplinary complaints, and who was labeled a "ticking time bomb" by a police psychologist, shot and killed an unarmed man.
"These abuses do not represent isolated incidents or aberrant behavior by a few rogue officers," said the report's author, Jennifer Turner of the ACLU's Human Rights Program. "The police brutality we documented is systemic, island wide and ongoing. The PRPD is steeped in a culture of unrestrained abuse and near-total impunity."
Police Superintendent Hector Pesquera, a former director of the FBI office in Miami who took office in April, called the ACLU report "incorrect and irresponsible."
"This is not a reflection of reality. I don't know where they are coming from or what's the agenda, but it's incorrect to say the police department is dedicated to violating the rights of Puerto Rico's citizens," Pesquera said in a Tuesday morning radio interview.
"There are cases of police corruption but it is no different than other police forces in the world," he said.
The 180-page ACLU report comes nine months after the U.S. Justice Department released a report that said Puerto Rico's police officers routinely engaged in "excessive" and "unreasonable" force, committed misconduct to suppress First Amendment rights and conducted unlawful searches and seizures.
The Justice Department also said the police department failed to adequately police sex crimes and domestic violence and engaged in discriminatory practices against members of Puerto Rico's sizeable Dominican community.
Moreover, the police department's information and data systems were severely lacking, hampering its ability to fight crime and maintain oversight of internal violations, it said.
The Justice Department investigation focused on incidents from 2004 to 2008, while the ACLU report focuses on incidents from 2007 to May 2012.
The ACLU report was based on more than 75 interviews in Puerto Rico with government officials and victims of police brutality or their attorneys or surviving relatives.
The report said Puerto Rico Police Department officers killed at least 21 civilians in 2010 and 2011, and the Caribbean island's per capita rate of fatal police shootings in 2010 was almost triple that of New York City's.
Only about one percent of rapes were properly reported by the Puerto Rico Police Department, the report said. In most U.S. jurisdictions the number of reported rapes was four times the number of homicides but in 2010, the PRPD reported 1,000 homicides but only 39 rapes, according to the report.
In 2011, the number of women killed by their partners in Puerto Rico was six times higher than in Los Angeles, which has about the same population of 3.7 million.
Between 2005 and 2010, more than 1,700 PRPD officers were arrested for criminal activity including assault, domestic violence, drug trafficking and murder - amounting to 10 percent of the force, the ACLU said. At least 84 still-active PRPD officers have been arrested two or more times for domestic violence.
"The Puerto Rican government has promised reform for years, but people are still suffering under a police department that is out of control. The U.S. Justice Department needs to take concrete action immediately to end the PRPD's unconstitutional practices," said Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director.
Governor Luis Fortuno has fired two police chiefs and has reached out to federal authorities in trying to control a crime wave in Puerto Rico and address department lapses.
Puerto Rican officials said increased drug trafficking in the Caribbean is fueling the island's crime rate and have called on U.S. authorities to provide more personnel and equipment.
The U.S. Justice Department investigation was launched in 2008 after a police officer was caught on videotape shooting an unarmed man and several other officers were arrested on charges of framing suspects.
"Governor Fortuno proposed reforms after the Justice Department report came out nine months ago, but they are superficial at best, and regardless, almost none have been put into place," said William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. "We still lack a system that holds police officers accountable for their actions, and people are dying because of it."
The ACLU wants the U.S. Justice Department to enter a court-enforceable and court-monitored agreement with the Puerto Rico Police Department to ensure reforms, while officials say the path to reform is already being blazed. (Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Editing by Jackie Frank)