The Ballad Of Sila’s Top Cops

by John Marino

December 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Gov. Calderón’s greatest failure during her single term in office is probably her inability to fill one of the toughest jobs on the island -- picking a chief to serve as boss to Puerto Rico’s 19,000-strong police force.

The governor finally confirmed this week what the local press has long been speculating, that Police Superintendent Víctor Rivera would quit his post by year’s end.

There have been three police chiefs in as many years under the Calderón administration, and the governor’s announcement this week means there will be a fourth, who will, hopefully, finish out the governor’s four-year term next December.

Not one of them has been able to leave a mark on the post during their one-year stints, and while the job requires far more, no one should expect the governor’s fourth top cop to do so either.

The revelation could not have come at a worse time, as it coincided this week with the brazen Monday morning killing of four young men outside a prominent Santurce nightclub just outside the Condado tourist area.

It was the eighth multiple slaying of the year, and comes at a time when concern over crime is reaching an all-time high.

Recently, a weekday afternoon triple murder occurred in the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall, which followed a triple-killing at a Bayamón pub and the senseless murder of a 16-year-old high school student, struck down by a stray bullet while driving home, caught in the crossfire of warring drug lords.

It’s not a good time to change police chiefs. Citizen’s sense of security is much like consumer confidence, based as much on appearances as cold hard facts. The abbreviated terms of service of the governor’s top cops has worked to undermine the image of the police force carrying out an anti-crime plan, and has instead painted a picture a directionless agency struggling to contain crime.

A fourth top cop will only reinforce the public perception that the administration does not have a solid handle on the crime problem.

Rivera’s exit is particularly troubling because he had had begun to build some momentum in his job. The murder rate, which surged passed last year’s, has recently dipped below last year’s violent death tally, although the bloody weekend that just passed, with 18 killed, has brought the difference within a dozen.

The administration spent $1 million a month over the last two months for police overtime pay, putting more cops on the streets in metropolitan San Juan, and the results appeared to be a drop-off in crime.

The government had also pulled out a public relations campaign to highlight its efforts against crime, and assigned some $90 million for the purchase of Police Department equipment.

If Rivera had stayed on, he could have built on those apparent achievements, and may have been able to genuinely woo the public into feeling more secure. The chances that his successor will be able to pull such a feat off are far slimmer.

But the Police Department has been genuinely harmed by the nearly constant turnover at its top during Calderón’s term.

Each of the chief’s made sweeping personnel and structural changes, with the net result being that each change wiped out any progress made by the previous change.

Calderón’s next superintendent -- whoever that might be -- should avoid unwarranted tinkering and focus on implementing an anti-crime plan.

The governor and Rivera had been denying for months that he would leave his post. This week, however, they both said that Rivera was trying to resolve "personal" problems that would allow him to stay.

Then the day after television personality "La Comay," a neighborhood gossip, said that Rivera was leaving because the married man had gotten a girlfriend pregnant, Calderón confirmed that he would be history by the end of the season, but said the reasons were financial.

The governor said she selected Rivera’s successor but added she would withhold the name until what she deemed the "appropriate time."

It was an awkward way to announce such a serious departure from her Cabinet, and it increased the political cost to the Calderón administration.

The police superintendent’s job is a tough one, and there’s little doubt that whoever succeeds Rivera will have the toughest job of all out of the group of the governor’s top cops.

For Puerto Rico, it could be the most important nomination out of the multitude that Calderón has made during her brief gubernatorial career, as it will have a direct effect on the public’s safety, or at least its perception of it.

But then again, Calderón still has to name a chief justice nominee after the public, and the Senate, overwhelmingly rejected her first pick Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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