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Policing Worsens Public Safety for Puerto Rico’s Most Vulnerable

Policing in Puerto Rico deepens inequalities stemming from domination by the U.S. and failed development.

Police form a line in front of protesters during a May Day protest against pension cuts, school closures and slow hurricane recovery efforts in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 1, 2018.

Part of the Series

When existing political economic structures are faltering or being called in question, political elites have strategically mobilized fears about crime and violence to increase their reach and consolidate power. Stuart Hall and his colleagues outlined this process in the foundational text Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, in which they noted that when society seems to be “slipping into a certain crisis,” panic over crime and violence can “serve as the articulator of the crisis, as its ideological conductor.” Panic about crime allows for the existing social order, and the unequal power dynamics that it produces, to be stabilized or strengthened throwing the “slow build-up to a ‘soft’ law-and-order society.” Under the guide of public safety, political elites are able to promote repressive policies that would normally receive tremendous pushback from various sectors of society. The Puerto Rican state strengthened its security apparatus and promoted a punitive common sense that treated violent crime as the central problem confronting the archipelago in order to elide the role of colonial capitalism in producing the insecurity experienced by many Puerto Ricans.

Accepting the colonial lie of Puerto Rico’s “nonviability,” the Puerto Rican government did not challenge the model of continued incorporation within the United States. Rather, left with the ruins of a failed development model and few options to affect political and economic change, the Puerto Rican state turned to punitive governance to suture the ruptures of colonial capitalism. In particular, the state has turned it punitive apparatus against racially and economically marginalized Puerto Ricans, who are the most likely to suffer the effects of Puerto Rico’s social and economic crises.

Policing as Structure

Often when I discuss my research, one of the first questions I get during question-and-answer sessions is: Who are the police? Members of the public and my academic colleagues want to know about the composition of the PRPD, I suspect, in an attempt to make sense of officers’ inclination toward using violence against some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable people. There is a desire to mark them as somehow different and distinct from the Puerto Ricans they police. For the most part, however, the police in Puerto Rico are similar to the populations they police. They are a racially diverse group of men and women who tend to be individuals of modest economic means, for whom joining the police force is a path toward economic stability. As policing increasingly became positioned as the solution to a wide range of social crises, the ranks of the police force swelled. Currently, the PRPD is comprised of approximately thirteen thousand officers and is one of the largest departments under US jurisdiction. For thousands of middle- and low-income Puerto Ricans trying to envision a future for themselves while the archipelago is awash in economic uncertainty, the police force represents a stable and signified career.

While there is much to be said about why joining the police, much like joining the military, is seen as one of the few paths toward upward mobility and economic stability in contemporary Puerto Rico, that is not the focus of this book. This book is less about the police as individual and collective actors and more about how policing functions as a structure that shapes various aspects of Puerto Rican society and impacts a range of social institutions and relationships, as well as the norms that often undergird them. By understanding policing as a structure as opposed to simply the work of individuals, we move away from seeing police violence as the actions of aberrant individuals within the police force – “a few bad apples” – to instead focus on how violence is inherent to police work and the colonial, capitalist, gendered, and racial order that it reproduces and maintains. As David Correia and Tyler Wall succinctly point out, “Capitalism and colonialism cannot exist without a state willing and able to defend colonial domination, private property, the wage relation, and the ongoing patterns of dispossession that characterize all of these. Ain’t no colonialism and ain’t no capitalism without cops.”

Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico
Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico

What makes the police different from ordinary citizens is that they are tasked with using force to maintain political order and the smooth functioning of capital. We must understand violence as central to the functioning of state power and the police as “violence workers” empowered to use their discretion to exact state-sanctioned violence on individuals and populations deemed threatening or noncompliant. As historian Sam Mitrani notes, professional police forces were created during the mid- and late nineteenth century to “use violence to reconcile democratic politics with the deeply exploitative industrial capitalist order that developed in late-nineteenth-century cities.” Although the police officers who populated these newly created forces often came from the working class and were “poorly paid and expected to work long, dangerous hours, like other workers,” police were not “ordinary workers.” Rather, police officers were expected to maintain order among the working class and encouraged to use force when necessary in order to do so, creating a deep divide between the police and the working class. Mitrani’s description of the composition and the function of the police remains relevant today. Attempts to divorce the police from the key role they play in perpetuating economic exploitation and class hierarchies, solely because individual offers are enmeshed with a capitalist (or colonial) social order, ignores how policing functions as a structure that protects and promotes processes of capital accumulation and racial differentiation.

In the context of the United States, Puerto Rico, and other societies founded on slavery and settler colonialism, native and other racially oppressed populations are criminalized in order to maintain a set of unequal power relations based on the theft of land and labor. According to historian Nikhil Singh, the history and function of policing within slaveholding and settler societies demand that policing be understood as an institution of whiteness that upholds white supremacy racial hierarchy and unequal property relations. The whiteness of the police and the criminalization of Blackness are not strictly reducible to specific white people or Black people. Rather, these racial forms emerge as subject positions within racial capitalism. The multi-racial composition of a police force, in this case the PRPD, does not make the police as an institution any less racist or deadly; it merely demonstrates how “racial orders must be institutionalized, that is, managed by personnel who are recruited, invested in, and subjectively constituted for this purpose.” Thus the police, regardless of the racial makeup of a given police force, function as a race-making institution that upholds white supremacy while criminalizing racial and ethnic others who fall outside of the normative bounds of full citizenship.

This book is not interested in the individual race and class positions of the officers who serve in the PRPD or the justifications they provide for what they do. Instead, Policing Life and Death is chiefly concerned with how policing creates, maintains, and reinforces deeply exclusionary structures within contemporary Puerto Rican society. As a result, I prioritize accounts that detail the impact and outcomes of policing as experienced by those populations exposed to the harms of police violence, rather than the intentions of police officials. Following legal scholar Dean Spade’s reminder that we should be wary of the stories that the law and its agents of enforcement tell us about themselves, in this book I amplify the voices of those Puerto Ricans who are often silenced in official narratives: the policed. When we listen to, and indeed privilege, the voices of those who bear the brunt of punitive governance – those Puerto Ricans who have been rendered criminal and exposed to state intervention – we are able to better grasp what effects the state actually has on people’s lives as opposed to what it says it does.

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Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico shows how the Puerto Rican state has turned to punitive governance in response to transformations in the colonial reality of the archipelago. Tracing the growth of punitive governance in Puerto Rico provides an alternative means of charting transformations in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, as well as its effects on Puerto Ricans in their everyday lives. Together, the various chapters of this book show how punitive modes of governance have emerged as the central way that many Puerto Ricans encounter the state. These pages weave together stories about how Puerto Ricans under the role of the state and moments when the state is complicit in their deaths. Refusing to accept the tenuous safety promised by state violence against Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable, more and more Puerto Ricans are contesting punitive governance and working toward a future grounded in justice and freedom.

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