Thousands of state police officers in Puerto Rico did not show up for work over the Halloween weekend, said island authorities, a show of force from cops who are demanding better labor conditions and higher retirement pensions.
Puerto Rico Police Commissioner Antonio López Figueroa said there were at least about 5,000 absences in the island’s police force, which has between 10,400 and 11,500 members. Authorities put in place a special operations plan, which drew from municipal police and other departments to strengthen security.
“In my 34 years, the police I know have never put the safety of the people at risk,” said López Figueroa in a written statement after activating the alternate police plan. ”Our governor’s commitment is and will continue to be to attend to the demands of all the police.”
The protest coincides with a violent weekend on the island, with over a dozen homicides reported all over Puerto Rico, including in the cities of San Juan, Ponce, Bayamón and Fajardo.
Battle for retirement benefits
Diego Figueroa, the president of the United Front of Organized Police (FUPO in Spanish) — a local police union made up of retired and active officers — told the Miami Herald that the island’s police members work decades of public service and often receive little benefits and low pensions following retirement despite facing dangerous situations as part of their everyday job.
A 2013 law froze the police pension system, which did not allow active police officers to accrue further benefits. It also reduced the annual percentage of their salary they would be owed and eliminated a monthly medical insurance stipend for after retirement.
“When a current policeman is about to retire, their pension is insufficient ... their pension is misery,” Figueroa said.
While the union did not organize the protest, which has been characterized as a self-summoned action within police ranks, Figueroa said the organization was in solidarity with those who participated in the work stoppage.
“The fight is fair, the fight is reasonable, the fight is sincere,” said Figueroa. “The struggle is that they need to have the real guarantee that they will have a dignified retirement.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said on his Twitter account that his administration is an “undisputed ally” of the island’s police force, paying for overtime in quicker turnarounds and extending sick and vacation times.
“I have said and I maintain that our police officers deserve a fair retirement, since it is a problem that precedes my administration,” wrote the island’s top official, adding he was in negotiations with the Financial Oversight and Management Board, tasked with supervising the island’s finances and helping it exit bankruptcy.
The board approved eligibility for Social Security and salary increases in the past two years for police officers. But the board did not support the implementation of a 2020 law — which would have restored some retirement benefits for emergency officials, including police officers — because it did not align with the government’s fiscal plan. And Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who oversees Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy proceedings in federal court, voided “The Law for a Dignified Retirement” in October, which aimed to protect government pensions from cuts.
The island’s Department of Public Safety released a statement last week, saying it had met with the oversight board’s leadership, along with other Pierluisi officials, to find “alternatives that benefited the members of the Puerto Rico Police force.”
Killings over the weekend
Despite assurances from top brass that a safety plan was kicked into gear, town mayors took special measures to address the lack of state public-safety personnel. On Friday morning, Maria Vega Pagán, mayor of Vega Alta, said on Facebook Live that there was only one state police officer in the town’s station and activated 12-hour shifts for the 15-member municipal security force.
Meanwhile, several municipal governments, including Villalba and Guánica, set night curfews for businesses in their towns. The mayor of Ponce, the island’s fourth largest city, decreed a state of emergency, and temporarily suspended vacation time for municipal police, a move also implemented in other places.
López Figueroa announced police operations had returned to normal by Monday morning. On Tuesday, he said at a press conference that police had carried out a massive operation against criminal and drug-related enterprises over the course of 45 days. Police agents, in collaboration with federal agencies, arrested about 800 people, including suspected hit men.
However, the mass absenteeism over the weekend came as authorities reported that at least 13 people were killed between Friday and Sunday, raising fears that the strike had affected public safety.
At least seven of the weekend’s slayings took place in Río Piedras, a university neighborhood in San Juan. The high-profile kidnapping of three people from a well-known restaurant in the area — including the owner — resulted in the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy. The FBI took over the case, and has put out images and video of a group of suspects.
Local authorities on the island rejected that the recent string of crimes was a result of the lack of police on the streets. The police commissioner said in a written statement Sunday that multiple specialized units, including those in charge of homicides and sexual violence, had continued to respond to incidents without interruptions.
Roberto Rivera, assistant commissioner for criminal investigation of Puerto Rico’s police, told the Miami Herald that there had been weekends with similar or higher murder rates in the past year, and nine alone in the weekend prior to Halloween.
“There was an absenteeism of our staff, but we had another large number of people working and who were with us in 12-hour shifts,” Rivera said. “These are events that are linked to the drug trade, of people who are already being chased, and that concluded over the weekend.”
Puerto Rico’s police force has reported a total of 507 murders in 2021. While Rivera said there were 63 more violent deaths than this same time last year, he emphasized that strict lockdowns and other pandemic-related measures resulted in lower levels of crime in 2020.
“When you measure it with a “real” year like 2019, we would have 11 fewer” murders, Rivera said.