Pereira's Blueprint Against Crime

by John Marino

May 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe Calderón administration's "new" crime fighting plan has been torn apart by critics since it was unveiled last week.

Even the man most responsible for its design -- Police Superintendent Miguel Pereira -- appeared lackluster about the initiative when he sat down to talk to reporters about it.

"This plan is not spectacular or completely new," he said. "But it's a commitment, a commitment that can be measured, and I believe it will be effective."

Despite the stinging criticism from political opponents, and complaints from several quarters within the police department, the new anti-crime plan is one of the most promising initiatives developed by the Calderón administration since it took office nearly 18 months ago.

And the plain-spoken, decidedly unflashly Pereira is quickly becoming one of its most interesting Cabinet members.

A former federal prosecutor and war hero, he knows police work and seems more at ease doing his job than talking to reporters.

There's something almost poetic about the simplicity of the plan. Rather than measuring the performance of the police department by the incidence of crime, Pereira will measure its performance by the amount of crimes it successfully resolves.

That makes eminent sense. Not only because solving crime is what police officers are supposed to do but because crime levels tend to rise and fall with forces outside the control of politicians, such as the economic cycle or the population levels of young men.

Says Pereira: "In Puerto Rico, you can go back to the 1960s and the focus has always been on raids, rather than making criminals pay for what they did. Preventive patrolling and increasing the number of police officers on the force have been shown to have no impact on crime."

With that statement, Pereira has thrown out the window the modus operandi that law enforcement officials and politicians have been operating under for decades.

Several weeks ago, the island's top cop made headlines for uttering what amounted to heresy within the police community. He said there were too many police officers on the force, that the department was inefficient, and that cuts were needed so that more resources could be devoted to getting needed equipment and upgrading the technological capabilities of the force.

His statements flew in the face of a pledge by his boss, Gov. Calderón, to increase the 19,000-member force by 4,000. "In a preliminary fashion, I am telling the governor my concern. We should revise such high numbers," he said.

Pereira argued that in 1962, the 5,000-member police force, which served a population of 2 million, had the highest number of arrests and convictions.

Besides cutting down on recruiting, Pereira wants to bump up the minimum age for an officer to 21 from 19 and set mandatory retirement for officers who have served on the force for 30 years to hold down the ranks of the police force.

Currently, only a dismal 26 percent of Type 1 crimes -- which include homicides, rapes, robberies and automobile theft -- are solved. That makes the superintendent's emphasis on solving crimes all the more urgent.

Pereira's new plan calls for the crime solving rate to jump up to 45 percent by December, and then increase by five percentage points annually.

To accomplish this, Pereira announced a major restructuring in the police force, eliminating nine of 13 assistant superintendent positions and the offices they run.

Instead, the 12 area commanders running police districts islandwide will be granted more powers and resources because Pereira says they are more in touch with what is happening on the streets in their areas than high-ranking officials at Hato Rey police headquarters.

One of the offices eliminated is the Criminal Investigations Corps, akin to a stateside detective unit whose 1,100 members do the bulk of investigative work on crimes in Puerto Rico.

Instead of reporting to a single commander at police headquarters, the agents will now be reassigned to the 12 area commanders. Before the change, a police investigation might take days to even begin as paper work on the case went from the town where the crime was committed to police headquarters in Hato Rey.

Under the new system -- already in place in San Juan, Bayamón and Caguas -- the investigation begins immediately.

Area commanders, who also must come up with charts of criminal organizations and maps of high crime areas for preventive patrolling measures, say they like the new power they have but say they must get needed equipment to jack up the rate of solving crimes.

Pereira has pledged to retrain CIC officers, give a patrol car for every two agents, radios and a fund to pay confidential informants.

The new plan also calls for the Police, Justice and Corrections departments, as well as the Courts Administration, to develop a shared criminal information system.

Pereira said that the recent development of the police's Automated Fingerprint Identification System, implemented across the United States a decade ago, would be expanded to cover all police districts. The system allows officers to immediately match a fingerprint against a database of previous offenders. Officers would also have access to the information, which also includes a database of photographs of crime suspects, from their patrol cars.

More funds have also been pledged to the Institute of Forensics Sciences, which desperately needs more technicians and lab equipment to speed the process of conducting DNA analysis on crime scene evidence and other tests.

With such pressing needs, Pereira is right to say that more cops on the beat is not the answer.

Former high ranking officers stripped of their power are complaining that the superintendent has not undertaken any massive, showy police raids, which have become a staple of police work. Police union leaders are screaming bloody murder over Pereira's call for police cuts and the lack of input they had in his plan.

Sounds like the Police Department is really being reformed.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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