Puerto Rico police chief quits amid crime concerns

AP News
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Posted: Jul 02, 2011 1:14 PM
Puerto Rico police chief quits amid crime concerns

Puerto Rico's police chief resigned Saturday amid sharp criticism over a rising homicide rate in the U.S. territory and allegations of police abuse.

Jose Figueroa Sancha stepped down after less than three years overseeing a 19,000-strong force.

"You, my fellow police officers ... represent the hope of a society that is going through a profound crisis in values," he said in a statement.

Figueroa did not say why he was leaving, but Gov. Luis Fortuno said in a statement that it was due to unspecified health problems.

Figueroa was appointed chief in November 2008 after working 23 years in the FBI. His resignation comes as the island of 4 million people battles a soaring crime rate: 568 killings so far this year, compared with 470 reported in the same period last year.

June was reportedly one of the bloodiest months on record, with nearly 30 people killed last weekend alone, including an 11-year-old boy. One of the most high-profile killings of the month was that of bank executive Maurice J. Spagnoletti, who was shot while driving home along one of the capital's busiest highways. No one has been arrested.

Figueroa inherited a high homicide rate, but the island also recorded its second-worst year for killings under his watch in 2010, when hundreds of National Guard troops were activated to fight crime. Despite their presence, more than 955 people were killed last year, compared with a record 995 people reported killed in 1994.

Figueroa, however, said the guard's presence reduced most crimes, including offenses such as robbery, assault and rape, by 11 percent.

Anibal Vega Borges, mayor of the northern town of Toa Baja, said Figueroa made an enormous effort to battle crime, despite limited resources.

"The police chief job is a hot seat that requires much composure and integrity," he said. "Figueroa Sancha leaves a positive contribution ... during a period of social and economic crisis. His Achilles' heel was the increase in killings."

William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU in Puerto Rico, celebrated Figueroa's departure.

"Personally, I think this is long overdue," he said. "From the beginning, it was evident that he was not the person to be leading the police department."

The ACLU issued a recent report alleging police brutality against university students, union leaders and journalists. Ramirez also criticized Figueroa for activating riot squads during student protests.

"He has not done his job well, and he has failed to acknowledge that," Ramirez said. "He's not effective in any way. It's not that he's not effective in some areas. It's in all areas."

Last year, the government appointed an independent monitor for the police department and announced more training for all officers in response to brutality allegations.

But the department's image became further marred when FBI agents arrested 77 police officers in October on charges that they aided drug traffickers. The arrests marked one of the largest police corruption investigations in the FBI's history.

Fortuno praised Figueroa for his work and called him a person of integrity.

"(He) was an incorruptible, tireless, relentless fighter against crime and drug trafficking," he said. "Under his command, powerful drug trafficking organizations were attacked and dismantled like never before seen in Puerto Rico."

On Friday, Fortuno signed a new budget that awarded $759 million to the police department, a slight increase from last year. Another 536 police cadets also are expected to join the force.

Fortuno said retired Col. Jose Luis Rivera will serve as interim police chief.

Juan Dalmau, secretary-general of the minority Puerto Rican Independence Party, said the government needs to attack the island's rampant drug abuse and encourage students to stay in school to help drive down crime.

"If a multidisciplinary focus is not adopted to stop crime, we will continue to see the same rise in criminality regardless of who they name as superintendent," he said.