A hostage situation at a credit union cooperative in Guaynabo, that involved a Bayamón Highway Patrol officer on Wednesday, calls for the urgent implementation of effective evaluation measures to intervene and disarm mentally disturbed officers.
This is a crucial step in the process to break with the inability of the Police leadership to resolve serious problems among members of the Police.
Amid the commotion caused by the incident at La Uniformada, it is encouraging to see that federal judge Gustavo Gelpí is dedicating to the much-needed Police reform. As recently as yesterday, Gelpí ordered the Police Department to present a plan to address mental health and domestic violence issues among police officers this year.
In contrast, authorities´denial of a –documented- crisis casts shadows on the will to achieve the urgent reform. Handling this sensitive issue with secrecy moves the Police away from the resolution. We need sensitivity and impartiality. The culture of protectionism hinders the effective operation of the Police Department.
The threats as an official response to complaints about the situations attributed to high absenteeism in the Police, including fatigue, lack of fair payment and work overload, have the significant effect of aggravating difficulties. We must listen to the officers and find ways to improve the circumstances that those who risk their lives to protect citizens are facing. Puerto Rico needs its police officers to be in good physical and mental condition, with high morale and able to maintain a healthy relationship with the community.
However, this Wednesday, the island was shocked when a highway patrol officer, uniformed and armed, held hostages at the Caribbean Federal Credit Union Cooperative, full of employees and customers, in Guaynabo. The picture, engraved into the collective psyche, joins recent gender-based violence incidents committed by police officers.
Until mid-December, the Police lost five officers in gender-based violence crimes: an officer and two agents took their own lives, and two of them after murdering their partners, who were also police officers. Only in the first five months of 2018, more than 70 agents had been disarmed due to gender-based violence cases. Several have been accused of similar charges.
Last September, Lersy Boria, Puerto Rico Women's Procurator, described as disturbing the lack of response from the Police to requests made since July to present their protocol to handle these kind of cases. In expressing her concern about fatal male violence events involving police officers, Boria urged the body to immediately prevent further tragedies.
Gender-based violence is one among many serious problems that still persist in the Police. These have been documented in the Police reform process that Judge Gelpí oversees. It´s been six years since the Puerto Rican government committed to the US Department of Justice to professionalize the body, establish greater internal controls and improve its treatment to citizens. But the process has shown significant delays in the implementation of structural changes, with a deep crisis in leadership and administration.
As recently as last month, we highlighted as a successful the fact that Judge Gelpí appointed a “special master” to ensure compliance with the reform. Now we trust that Police authorities will comply with the new order. The Police has to provide public safety, not to act against it.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló has to exercise his authority to adopt the measures that will take the Police out of its current crisis. Police officers with emotional o mental health issues should be offered immediate help, while promptly and fairly addressing those complaints that allow police officers to do their job in an optimum environment.
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