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A Leaner, Meaner Police Department: A New Approach To Crime Fighting

The Calderon administration’s anticrime chief will change the way the Police Department fights and prevents crime.


May 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Anticrime plan decentralizes the Police department by delegating more responsibility to area commanders, giving them clear, measurable crime solving goals they must meet or risk losing their jobs

When Miguel Pereira became Puerto Rico police superintendent earlier this year, he knew his task was not going to be an easy one.

With a successful military and federal law enforcement career under his belt, Pereira quickly understood that what the Police department needed was not a new study to analyze what problems afflicted the 19,000 member police force in its battle against crime, but a comprehensive overhaul with a new approach on how to do business.

"Why spend $1 million on another study, if we already know what the problems are from previous studies that keep highlighting the same issues?" Pereira asked CARIBBEAN BUSINESS during an exclusive interview.

In order to understand in what direction the police department needs to be headed, you must look at its origins, said Pereira.

The police department’s internal structure, based military structure, is exemplified by the police force’s use of wool uniforms, garrisons caps, and military rankings, noted Pereira. That structure has remained unchanged for years.

What the department needed, Pereira realized, was a new master plan that would dramatically change they way crime has been fought, requiring the decentralization of the police force, measuring crime by the number of cases solved, equipping police with more and better equipment and fostering the involvement of citizens, government agencies, and the private sector.

Crime prevention will no longer be entirely just a policing problem. The new plan will go at the heart of the matter—to crime’s social roots.

Long standing challenges

The Puerto Rico Police Department has an annual budget of $648 million, of which 90% is used to pay employee salaries and benefits. This only leaves 10% for equipment purchases and operational costs which includes $12 million for telephone expenses and $14 million for gasoline. This severely limits the department’s ability to respond to and function efficiently against crime.

Additionally, the department’s T-shaped hierarchy structure—with all the responsibility and decision-making made at the top level from police headquarters in Hato Rey—gave little leeway to island area commanders and street cops in their fight against regional crime.

If that were not enough, the department had long-standing issues of crime statistics manipulation spanning several of the previous administrations and low public trust.

With those concerns in mind, Pereira began to look at a 1988 study that analyzed police statistics from the previous 25 years.

"I had a concern that police statistics have been manipulated since 1980 at the least," said Pereira. "What police statistics really measure is social incidence, and statistics must be viewed as a cultural and social issue."

He realized that there had to be a better way to measure and improve the department’s effectiveness.

Currently only 25% of the crimes are solved, and there’s not enough public trust in the department, said Pereira. Taking a business approach, Pereira decided to tackle the challenge as a private corporation would.

"We must measure crime by the number of cases solved, not by the number of cases reported," said the police superintendent. "The crime issue is very complex, and has always boiled down to an economic decision."

The old belief that crime could be averted by investing more on cops and equipment has not been supported by facts, Pereira said. "It would never happen that way" if crime prevention does not address crime’s social roots.

Crime is a complex issue that in a way is a symptom or a mirror image of society, its values, and identity. It requires, said Pereira, the involvement of not just the police department, but of other government agencies, the community, and the private sector to bring crime rates down and the number of crime cases solved and convictions up.

"To fight crime requires from government a strategy with scientific rigor and management efficiency," said Pereira.

So an anticrime plan was conceptualized, emphasizing the decentralization of the police department and a more interagency (state, municipal, and federal) coordination aimed at increasing the number of crime cases solved and prosecuted.

The anticrime plan

In a nutshell, the anticrime plan is based on five fundamental values of public safety—protection, integrity, prevention, citizens’ participation, interagency coordination, and five main goals (see chart). A total of 19 local central government agencies are involved, in addition to civic organizations and federal law enforcement agencies.

To tackle the crime problem from its roots, the anticrime plan would bring athletic, cultural, personal development, and activity programs to at-risk youth who live in public housing projects and communities on the island. These include the Athletics Police League, Open School Program, and the Department’s Koban program.

Through the Koban program—developed in Japan—a police station is placed in a community as part of a multiservices center, creating a space where activities are held to keep the youth off the streets and drugs, and away from violence, while the police officers become an integral part of the community.

"These programs are shown to be very successful in preventing criminal behavior in high risk areas," said Pereira. "The key is to intervene before kids reach age 12 so that they learn how to become responsible adults."

Other elements of the anticrime plan include the implementation of Public Ordnance Codes, Neighborhood Safety Community Boards, and Neighborhood Watch Programs, and the involvement of the different state and federal task forces.

Another key element of the plan is the rehabilitation of the criminal.

"You have to rehabilitate the people you put in prison, or they’ll go back to the streets," said Pereira.

The police superintendent acknowledged that solving a higher percentage of crimes could involve the construction of more prisons, but it would be up to the department of corrections to make such determination.

A new police structure

In order to make the police force more accountable and at the same time more effective on the street—where it really counts—new clear and measurable goals with a set timetable to accomplish them will be implemented, giving the police and citizens a better way to evaluate and measure the department’s performance, explained Pereira.

The goal is to increase from 25% to 45% the number of solved crime cases by year end and increase that number every year.

Nine of the 12 police district offices will be eliminated, and their staffs reassigned to police district commanders, said Pereira.

"Area commanders will be held responsible and accountable for crime solving rates and for meeting goals," said Pereira. Those who don’t do their job or meet their goals will be removed, period."

Regaining the public’s trust

Two new advisory bodies have been established to help the department regain the public’s trust. These are the Assistant Superintendence for Public Integrity (ASPI), and the Police Citizen’s Advisory Board (PCAB).

ASPI is headed by Jorge Raices, who comes from the government’s Ethics Office.

"The top 100 agents in the police department have been selected to be part of this elite unit that will help the public regain its trust in us," said Pereira. "They will be subjected to a polygraph test, and those who don’t pass the test are out the door."

The polygraph tests will ensure that this elite unit will be free of corrupt cops, said Pereira.

So far 40 officers have taken and passed the polygraph test, and the remaining 60 are expected to do so in the weeks ahead, noted Pereira.

Drug tests will be given to all members of the police department as well.

ASPI will be in charge of handling three types of situations—citizens’ complaints against the police force, problems among police officers themselves, and complaints by police officers over internal investigations.

The PCAB is a consulting board, whose members are well respected for their good record and behavior, created to guarantee the propriety of all investigations conducted by the police department. Board members include Rafael Cartagena (educator), Elpidio Batista (judge), Ivonne Vazquez (housewife), Efrain Vargas (dentist), and Quirpas Perez Collazo (police colonel).

The PCAB’s job is to assure that complaints and internal affair matters are properly handled and adjudicated and to determine if an investigation should proceed, explained Pereira.

"Citizens cannot expect things always to go their way, but they can certainly expect a fair investigation," said Pereira, adding that ASPI and PCAB will guarantee an unbiased process within the Police department.

More cooperation with the feds

Cooperation with local and federal law enforcement agencies such as the United Quick Response Force (FURA by its Spanish acronym), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms will be strengthened by increasing the number of local police agents in the different task forces as well as by increasing the exchange of information with the federal officers.

The number of this special group of police officers will be increased from 145 to 185.

"Federal agencies are very important in providing a better quality of life for Puerto Rico," stated Pereira.

"Some 145 police officers are now assigned to special areas of cooperation with federal law enforcement agencies but we will increase that number to 185. Those police officers that work on task forces with federal agencies have the training, the equipment, and the space to conduct investigations," he said.

"These officers have been responsible for the success of joint operations with various federal drug enforcement agencies task forces," Pereira said.

He recalled how he led the first federal carjacking prosecutions in the U.S. while working at the District Attorney’s office in San Juan. "I can tell you from the success we had with the Safe Street Task Force in bringing down the number of carjackings here—from 7,000 in 1999 to less than 1,000 three years later—that a lot of the credit goes to the local police officers. In that task force there are 7 FBI agents and 25 local police officers," noted Pereira.

Wire tapping, a tool used extensively in federal drug interdiction cases, will be used more by the department, Pereira indicated. The Puerto Rico Constitution severely restricts such activity, and only local judges can authorize its use by local law enforcement, which must follow very strict guidelines.

Pereira said that until recently, the department had not really paid attention to drug investigations. In other words, it had been working without undercover agents. Pereira added that the department would now emphasize drug investigation and become more proactive.

Pereira reiterated that the police department would be conducting a number of drug interventions throughout the year and is committed to strengthening cooperation with other law enforcement agencies.

"Every transaction leaves a trail," he said. "The responsibility for the street level will be assigned to the Puerto Rico Police Area Commander while the Bureau will bring the investigation from the drug point up," said Pereira referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Better equipment

Pereira is a firm believer that to fight crime you don’t need more police officers but better trained and equipped ones. He stated that the number of officers would be capped through attrition. At the same time, the standards at the Police Academy—where right now 100% of cadets graduate—will be toughened in order to get better trained police officers.

Of the 1,191 officers in the Department’s Criminal investigations Division only the 500 best will remain, while the rest will be reassigned. Only a few members of the Police Reserve Force—composed of retired police officers—will remain as well. This measure will save the Department $3.5 million a year, money that can be used to buy more equipment.

The department is investing $13.5 million in new equipment this year, mostly in patrol vehicles. Pereira recently asked each area commander what they really need—not their wish list—in order to have a more realistic assessment of the Department’s equipment needs.

A batch of 200 patrol cars will be delivered in June and another 600 by July 1st, said Pereira.

Realizing the tight fiscal situation faced by his department and by the government in general, some 190 vehicles in good condition and with low miles—65 from the General Services Administration and another 125 forfeited by local and federal agencies—will be added to the department’s fleet during the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

These vehicles have already been identified and the transfer of ownership is pending, Pereira said.

"Investigators will be divided in teams of two, and the goal is to assign one vehicle to every two-officer team," said Pereira. "Usually a new, fully loaded police patrol costs $27,000, so using these forfeited vehicles saves us a lot of money."

Already 250 patrol vehicles have been equipped with computer display systems that will enable police officers access to the National Crime Information Center and the National Incident Base Reporting System, two databases used by federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the DEA. More computers will be installed as money for these becomes available.

Better training

Pereira acknowledged that the police academy—in charge of training local law enforcement officers—was too lax and its curriculum needed revision.

"When I arrived at the police department in January, I asked what was the flunk rate at the academy, and the answer was zero—all recruits graduate," said Pereira. "I was particularly concerned with the lack of operational training on street survival."

Pereira plans to increase training and improve curriculum. He admitted that he didn’t know how the police academy compared with other stateside academies, but said he would visit other academies or review their training manuals and gather suggestions on how to improve training.

Private sector participation

Aware of how important it is for the island’s economy to have a business climate free of criminal activity that attracts and fosters economic development, Pereira wants to reach out to the business community to seek ways in which the department can reduce business related crimes. He will do this by listening to businesses’ concerns and suggestions, as well as by having them participate in the police investigations.

One good example of private sector cooperation is the help the Puerto Rico Bankers Association provided to the police department by providing the funds for high-tech, stolen money detection equipment.

"The Bankers Association provided the funds for better detection equipment for our helicopter fleet, which will assist us in the fast recovery of money during bank robberies," said Pereira.

The police department has 13 helicopters and five fixed-wing aircrafts.

Undaunted by critics

Pereira is not swayed by what plan critics might say, especially those who believe that the coordination of 19 different government agencies is a daunting task in itself.

"We are driven to do this. This plan will have a lasting impact that will be felt long after it is fully implemented," said Pereira. "The Calderon administration is fully committed to the plan’s implementation."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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