January 3, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico police agree to strengthen hate crime response

Gay News, Washington Blade, Puerto Rico, Hate Crimes

Pedro Julio Serrano (Photo courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano)

The Puerto Rico Police Department agreed to strengthen its response to hate crimes in a settlement the Justice Department announced on Dec. 21.

DOJ ordered the PRPD to “collect accurate and reliable data hate crimes” on “an ongoing basis” and submit it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for inclusion in its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report. (The FBI currently reports statistics based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity and expression. It will begin to collect transgender-specific data this year as outlined in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act that President Obama signed in 2009. The agency will begin to report them in 2014.)

The department agreed to develop policies that will improve the way its officers interact with transgender people while in custody. The PRPD will also provide officers with bias-free police trainings at least every two years and annually after 2017. Components of these sessions will include “the protection of civil rights as a central part of the police mission” and “arbitrary classifications and stereotyping” based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and other factors.

“These provisions are designed to promote police services that are equitable, respectful, and free of unlawful bias in a manner that supports broad community engagement and effective crime prevention,” the agreement reads. “These provisions will enable PRPD to provide members of the public with equal protection of the law, without bias based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

“We appreciate the hard work of [then-Gov. Luís] Fortuño, [PRPD] Superintendent Hector Pesquera and their staff,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, said in a press release that announced the agreement. “Together, and with great input from the public, we have designed a comprehensive blueprint for reform that provides a solid foundation that will professionalize and support the hardworking men and women of PRPD as they protect the people of Puerto Rico.”

The DOJ’s announcement comes after its damning Sept. 2011 report that listed an inadequate response to hate crimes as among the PRPD’s numerous deficiencies.

More than 30 LGBT Puerto Ricans have been killed since gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado’s decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was found alongside a remote roadside in Nov. 2009.

A judge sentenced Juan José Martínez Matos to 99-years in prison after he pledged guilty to the crime, but the Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s own reports indicate Puerto Rican prosecutors have yet to convict anyone under the island’s hate crimes law that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The Puerto Rico Senate in late 2011 approved a proposal that would have eliminated LGBT-specific protections from the aforementioned statute.

Pedro Julio Serrano and other Puerto Rican LGBT advocates repeatedly criticized Fortuño and his administration for what they contend was an unwillingness to speak out against anti-LGBT violence in the American commonwealth in the wake of López’s brutal death that sent shockwaves across the island and around the world.

“It’s definitely too little too late for the outgoing administration,” Serrano told the Washington Blade in response to the DOJ agreement. “But it’s a good blueprint and protocol that is necessary to finally have this in place for the prosecutors in Puerto Rico so they can work on the hate crimes on the island and make sure they are correctly prosecuted and investigated as hate crimes because it hasn’t happened in Puerto Rico.”

The DOJ also met with Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, who succeeded Fortuño on Wednesday, to discuss the agreement.

“We look forward to working with Governor-elect García Padilla and his incoming administration to finalize the agreement and begin the critical work of rebuilding PRPD,” Perez said before the current governor took office. “Ensuring effective, constitutional policing is not a partisan issue, and we appreciate the commitment of Gov. Fortuño and Governor-elect García Padilla to the reforms embodied in the agreement. The successful implementation of the reforms contained in this agreement will help to reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution and restore public confidence in PRPD.”

García pledged during his campaign he would support a number of LGBT-specific proposals that include the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the island’s anti-employment discrimination law, civil unions for same-sex couples and including LGBT Puerto Ricans in the island’s domestic violence statutes. Serrano urged the incoming administration to amend the hate crimes law to allow prosecutors to introduce bias-related evidence at the start of a trial as opposed to during the sentencing phase.

“We want it from the get go to be prosecuted as a hate crime so the evidence and a way the case is prosecuted is a following the motivation of the crime and it’s not left to the end of the process where usually after they get a conviction or someone pleads guilty then they don’t have to deal the motivation because they already got what they wanted,” he said, adding he feels both the PRPD and the Puerto Rico Justice Department do not understand how to address hate crimes. “The only way to curb anti-LGBT violence in Puerto Rico is we finally prosecute these as hate crimes and people understand the motivation behind them was anti-LGBT.”

The DOJ agreement will take effect on April 15.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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