Almost six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, residents continue to suffer from the breakdown of a criminal justice system that was already in crisis because of funding shortfalls.
One key indicator of the “chaotic” state of the island’s infrastructure is a fourfold increase in the number of domestic violence calls in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 20 storm, according to John Jay College Professor Jodie Roure, who works with human rights and women’s organizations there.
Roure cited unofficial figures showing the number of 911 calls relating to domestic violence skyrocketed from 211 in the immediate aftermath of the storm to 889 the following month—with some 1,747 calls received through November, 2017.
“These are astronomical numbers,” Roure said in an interview on CUNY-TV’s “Criminal Justice Matters” that will be aired next week, adding that “the lack of access to food and electricity has exacerbated stress” in many families hit hardest by the storm, and contributed as well to a number of “murder-suicides” related to domestic conflicts.
Roure joined William Ramirez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union branch on the island, who noted earlier in the program that the destruction of many police stations and courts—particularly in remote mountain towns—and a walkout by police to protest the lack of overtime pay threatened authorities’ ability to cope with an increase in security threats, such as “bands of criminals” looting houses and stores.
“Public safety is compromised and crime is up,” he declared. “(But) Maria unmasked the ‘human crisis’ that has been growing for a while, related to our bankruptcy and insolvency.”
Even as some infrastructure services, like electricity and communications, have begun to normalize, Puerto Rico still faces a long uphill struggle to rebuild its justice system at a time when the island’s financial crisis is far from solved.
Both Ramirez and Roure told Criminal Justice Matters host Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report, that the chaotic conditions experienced by the island’s post-hurricane justice system served as a warning lesson for communities who might face similar problems in future natural catastrophes.
Many police stations were destroyed. Courts followed unpredictable schedules leaving many detained suspects waiting for trials that might never happen. And strict curfews put at risk even law-abiding residents, many of whom were victimized by racial profiling, Ramirez said.
He cited one example of a black employee of a power company who was arrested for breaking curfew even though he was assigned to repair downed electricity lines.
While similar problems were experienced in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Houston following the flooding left by Hurricane Harvey last August, Puerto Rico was particularly hard hit because so many residents were stranded in remote areas without communication, power, roads, or police protection, Ramirez said.
Added Roure: “With any natural disaster, globally, considering climate change, we’re going to be seeing this increasingly.”
Focusing on the problem of domestic abuse, Roure said women’s organizations on the island had begun to mobilize to train shelter workers to deal with the traumatic impact of disasters on families—and develop plans to address even apparently minor details such as ensuring shelters were protected.
“Shelters (on the island) were full, but many fences were down and they weren’t secure,” she said, making them easy targets for angry spouses—particularly when the lack of telephone communication effectively prevented shelter workers from calling police for help.
The complete episode of Criminal Justice Matters, a joint production of CUNY-TV and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, will be aired in the New York metropolitan region Feb. 6 and Feb. 7—and repeated on the weekend of Feb. 10-11. Readers’ comments are welcome.