Judge Gelpi said yesterday that he was not opposed to that proposal, but insisted that it is necessary to inform the federal Department of Justice about the agreement in order to ensure that it complies with the Police Reform. (David Villafañe)

PONCE - Five years after signing the agreement with the federal government to promote the Police Reform, citizens groups questioned the progress in the transformation of that body yesterday.

Last night -and for the first time in many months-, citizens from different sectors met at the Antiguo Casino (Old Casino), in Ponce, to express their views on the reform process. The public session was held only hours after a Federal Court hearing, in which the government of Puerto Rico asked Judge Gustavo Gelpí for an extension to implement the changes in the Police.

"It only confirms what we have been denouncing for a long time. Seven years after the complaints for violation of civil rights began, and we have not seen a real effort of the Puerto Rican government to try to comply with the police reform", expressed Yanina Moreno, spokeswoman of the Camp Against the Ashes in Peñuelas.

"In our case, as a community, we are witnesses that this has not happened. We have been, precisely, a victim of the Puerto Rico Police, when their responsibility is to protect and safeguard the life and civil rights of all citizens," she added.

Moreno referred to the clashes between members of the group and police officers during the protests against the deposit of coal ashes at the Peñuelas landfill.

The Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez submitted the motion requesting more time to implement 37 points of the reform before Judge Gelpí, who oversees compliance with the agreement.

According to the motion, last year, the Commonwealth has been under the oversight of the Board and the PROMESA Act, which has “significantly limited the budget of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau".

"These limitations have affected the dates established in the action plans," added the official, recalling that the agreement with the federal Department of Justice for the Police Reform contemplates the possibility of extending deadlines, if necessary. 

Last night, during the meeting, Sandra Ramos, criminology professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ponce, said that despite those delays due to PROMESA and Hurricane Maria,  progress of the Police Reform depends on addressing problems prior to those circumstances.

"I think there has been enough time. Now, they are not working with what they should work at a preventive level. There is lot of remedial action," said Ramos.

"Besides, we cannot talk about a reform until  working conditions in the Police improve,” she added. "They have had enough time, but there is a lack of affection towards police officers from the agency itself."

Those plans for the professionalization of the Police, the use of force, equal protection and non-discrimination, policies and procedures, overseeing andadministration, complaints management and information systems are among the areas where extensions were requested.

Faced with this request, Judge Gelpí initially stated that he was giving way to the extensions, although he had an objection "to extend the periods of time". In endorsing the request, he said he did so "because of the fact" that the federal Department of Justice and the Monitor agreed with the proposal.

However, during the hearing, the representative of the US Department of Justice was surprised by the motion of the government of Puerto Rico, because, although they were in negotiations, they had not reached an agreement.

"I am surprised that the motion was submitted, because it is an issue still under negotiation and we have not reached an agreement," warned Luis Saucedo, federal Justice attorney.

Given this approach, Judge Gelpí dismissed his first order, and told the parties to renegotiate the extensions and inform him of the outcome in order to issue a decision.

The hearing began with a complaint by the federal Labor Department regarding the Police failing to comply with an electronic record system to document and pay for officers overtime.

Molly Biklen, a lawyer for that federal agency, told Judge Gelpi that, for the moment, they would not request fines or declare contempt against the Police, but demanded to establish one once the matter is resolved.

Scott Kreg, advisor to Monitor Arnaldo Claudio, said that the Police has shown efforts, but pointed out that there is a lack of will, leadership and resources, and that there is resistance in some sectors within the agency.

After listening to Joel Torres, a government lawyer, summarize the procedures to identify a possible provider of that service, the federal judge warned that an expedited process should be established, and ordered that, by August 20, he should be confirmed that there is an agreement on the implementation.

Another issue discussed at the hearing was the privatization of the Police Academy. In May, the government informed that it was in the process of analyzing a proposal for these purposes. It is an Ana G. Méndez University System proposal, as its president José Méndez confirmed to El Nuevo Día.

Judge Gelpi said yesterday that he was not opposed to that proposal, but insisted that it is necessary to inform the federal Department of Justice about the agreement in order to ensure that it complies with the Police Reform. 

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