Puerto Rico police chief resigns as killings, absences spike

2018-01-09 21:49
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

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San Juan – Puerto Rico's first female police chief resigned on Monday amid a spike in killings while thousands of officers continue to call in sick to protest the lack of overtime pay.

The island's governor said retired military officer Michelle Hernandez was stepping down after one year of overseeing one of the largest police departments under US jurisdiction. Officials did not provide further details, and Hernandez did not immediately return a call for comment through her spokeswoman.

Puerto Rico had recorded 23 killings as of Sunday, compared with nine in the same period in 2017, police spokesperson Carlos Rivera told The Associated Press. This year's killings have occurred across the US territory and include a triple homicide in recent days, he said. Two double homicides were reported later on Monday, in the western coastal city of Mayaguez and the north coastal town of Rio Grande.

More than 2 700 officers have been absent daily on average in recent weeks, compared with the usual average of about 600 daily absences. It is unclear whether that number has changed in recent days and whether any action has been taken against officers who have called in sick. The island's police department referred all questions to Karixia Ortiz, spokesperson for Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety. She told AP that the agency is investigating the absences and declined further comment.

Carlos Morales, president of an association that represents the majority of the department's 13 000-plus officers, said that he and many others are not upset that Hernandez resigned.

"She has not proven nor shown interest in how to work with Puerto Rico's police officers," he told AP.

'Lack of overtime pay'

Morales said daily absences have dropped slightly to about 2 300. He said a judge overseeing a 10-year federally mandated reform of Puerto Rico's police department has requested information on the absences and why they are occurring. He said officers are pleased the judge has shown interest in the issue.

Officers have been demanding millions of dollars owed for working overtime after hurricanes Irma and Maria, with some working seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day.

A couple of weeks ago, Hernandez estimated the government owed officers an additional $35m in overtime pay, but said the department was still tallying attendance sheets to determine the exact amount. More than $20m has been paid so far as the island struggles to restructure a portion of its $73bn public debt amid an 11-year recession.

Also on Monday, government officials announced that Jose Izquierdo, director of Puerto Rico's Tourism Company, had been asked to resign. Officials did not provide further details or respond to requests for comment.

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