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Holder announces plan to curb abuse in Puerto Rico's police force

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

SAN JUAN (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced sweeping changes in Puerto Rico's Police Department on Wednesday aimed at curbing violence and abuse within its ranks and settling a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the department in December.

"This agreement will serve as a blueprint for building a modern law enforcement agency that's well-equipped to keep the people of Puerto Rico safe, while protecting their rights and civil liberties," Holder said.

The agreement includes new rules for the handling of civilian complaints and internal investigations, and introduces strict new policies on the use of force by police officers in the crime-plagued commonwealth.

It also focuses on recruitment and training, and contains new measures to strengthen oversight of the 17,000-member police force, the second-largest in the United States.

The Justice Department and former Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno agreed to the overhaul of the island's police in a consent decree filed in December. They delayed putting the changes in place until Garcia Padilla had an opportunity to review them and weigh their costs on the island's cash-starved budget.

The consent decree was filed the same day as the lawsuit from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and followed a scathing 116-page report about Puerto Rico Police Department issued by the Justice Department in September.

That report said Puerto Rico's police force had a "longstanding" pattern of civil rights violations that had essentially left it as a "broken" tool for law enforcement.

"This agreement is being made to guarantee that the public will be free from being victims of excessive force, illegal searches and seizures and systematic discrimination by the police," said Garcia Padilla.

"The goal is that when these measures are totally implemented, the country will have a police force that in addition to overseeing the safety of all, will guarantee individual civil rights and have the public's trust."

(Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Editing by Tom Brown and Steve Orlofsky)

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