Puerto Rico's police chief vows to fight corruption in department widely accused of abuses

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Already undergoing federally mandated reform, Puerto Rico's police department faces an overhaul after a new wave of arrests in an agency widely accused of corruption and other abuses.

The restructuring was announced after FBI agents arrested 10 police officers Tuesday for allegedly stealing drugs and cash, planting evidence and taking bribes. A lieutenant and sergeant were among those detained in the latest round of arrests targeting the U.S. territory's troubled police department.

Police Chief Jose Caldero said that among other things he would reorganize anti-drug units and require polygraph tests for officers.

"We will clean house," he said. "We will not tolerate corruption."

Authorities already had said they have hired consultants, trained officers on the use of force and appointed a monitor as part of a 10-year reform effort ordered by Washington after the U.S. government issued a scathing report in 2011 accusing police of illegal killings, corruption and civil rights violations.

Critics questioned whether the department can root out the problems on its own as the FBI warned that more arrests were likely.

"The police department obviously is not capable of cleaning its own house because it's the FBI making the arrests," said William Ramirez, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Puerto Rico. "We're putting out fires all the time. We get a lot of complaints."

Puerto Rico's police department is the second largest in a U.S. jurisdiction, and more than 100 officers have been arrested over the past five years on corruption charges. Lawyers and activists say many more are never prosecuted.

The corruption has frustrated many Puerto Ricans, leading some like Xiomara Rivera to videotape suspected cases of police abuse only to end up in trouble with authorities.

The pregnant mother of two young children used her cellphone in August to record an exchange between police officers and her neighbor, a retired officer himself who denounced the other officers for allegedly using a Taser on a young man, she said.

After police arrested the retired officer following a verbal fight, Rivera said, they surrounded her, drew their Taser and snatched her phone.

"They told me, 'If you don't give us your phone, we'll shoot you,'" she said.

Rivera filed a complaint, saying her phone's contents were deleted before it was returned to her. FBI agents have interviewed Rivera, but the case has not been resolved.

Noting such cases, Ramirez and other activists are pushing for an independent agency with civilian oversight to handle complaints against police, but a bill calling for that change has remained shelved in committee.

Critics say the reform process has been slow and incomplete, and police officials concede they have struggled to resolve a large backlog of civilian complaints.

Among those who waited months for their case against police to be resolved is Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a department store employee.

He said he was on a terrace looking at his phone last year as police nearby scuffled with two young men in the northern town of Naranjito. He said police accused him of recording them then grabbed him by the neck and punched him at least twice in the eye. Rodriguez was arrested on charges of obstructing justice and needed seven stitches. After multiple delays, the charges against him were dropped and one of the officers was found guilty in December.

Despite the outcome of his case, Rodriguez believes many officers will not face punishment.

"I doubt there'll be any changes," he said of promises made by the island's government to reform the department.

Danica Coto on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/danicacoto

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