Puerto Rican police under intense scrutiny after second killing in 1 week; feds investigating

By Danica Coto, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

PR police under scrutiny after recent killings

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Police say they fatally shot a 77-year-old man after he opened fire at them Wednesday, a killing that comes as Puerto Rico’s law enforcement officers are under scrutiny for allegedly using excessive force.

The killing happened hours before Gov. Luis Fortuno publicly introduced an independent monitor he appointed to assist a federal investigation into allegations of excessive force and corruption among police on the U.S. territory.

The dead man, William Malaret Pagan, shot at officers when they tried to arrest his son on drug charges, Police Chief Jose Figueroa Sancha said.

Officers identified themselves when they arrived at the house where Malaret and his son lived in the southern coastal city of Ponce, the police report said. When they got no response, they forced open the door and then came under under fire from a .38-caliber handgun, the report said.

The newspaper El Nuevo Dia quoted family members as disputing the police account. They said the officers did not identify themselves, which prompted Malaret to fire at them.

The shooting came a day after rookie police Officer Abimalet Natal Rivera was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly opening fire while responding to a reported robbery at a Burger King last week, killing an unarmed bystander, Jose Vega, 22. Rivera allegedly began shooting after hearing another officer’s gun go off by accident.

Figueroa, the police chief, said at a news conference Wednesday that he has suspended other officers involved in the Burger King case, but he defended the actions of the police involved in Wednesday’s shooting.

The governor said he and Figueroa would discuss the Burger King shooting with federal officials and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly during a trip to New York next week.

“It is our responsibility to ensure the rights of citizens at all times,” Fortuno said.

Figueroa said he supports the appointment of retired Judge Efrain Rivera as an independent monitor to aid the federal investigation into the department.

“It is the best decision,” he said. “We should not refuse help.”

Appearing at a news conference with Fortuno, Rivera told reporters that as monitor, he will hire civil-rights lawyers and review thousands of documents outlining police protocols in the hopes of preventing another shooting.

“A weapon is the last recourse,” he said.

Fortuno said Rivera’s findings would be made public.

Some questioned whether hiring a monitor would lead to any changes.

In 2007, police created an independent panel to investigate the department after an officer shot an unarmed man three times — once in the head — in a killing that was captured on video. The officer was convicted of first-degree murder.

The panel made several recommendations that police officials embraced, such as requiring officers to undergo psychological tests every three years and demanding that candidates take a polygraph test, former Police Chief Pedro Toledo told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

But panel leader Carlos Gallisa told the AP that interviews with dozens of officers revealed a lack of basic schooling among many of those who are recruited to serve on the force. He added that the officers also worked long hours with insufficient pay.

Gallisa, an attorney and former politician, joined several legislators who have called for Figueroa to step down.

“This is not a question of reports or of committees,” he said. “The leadership needs to change.”

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