SAN JUAN – The government of Puerto Rico has relieved Police Chief Michelle Hernandez of her duties, amid a labor conflict in the police force marked by widespread absenteeism, which has left few officers in the streets and a consequent rise in homicides.
The executive director of the Puerto Rican Police Union, Jose Marin, told EFE on Tuesday that he hopes the absenteeism will be resolved and safey on the streets restored.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Monday in a statement that he had accepted the resignation of Police Chief Hernandez, but whether she left the department of her own volition is not yet clear.
The statement added that Rossello had designated Lieut. Col Henry Escalera as interim commissioner of the Puerto Rican Police Department while the search is on for the best candidate to fill the post.
Hernandez’s departure comes at a time of great controversy because of the vast number of police on sick-leave, which brought about Rossello’s warning that police who failed to show up for duty during the past Christmas season without justification would be sanctioned.
Police absenteeism was originally noticed during the first shift on Christmas Day, when Puerto Rican police told EFE that a total of 2,615 agents took sick-leave and were absent from their posts.
Local media said at the time that the disproportionate absenteeism forced several precincts to close on Christmas Eve.
The union leader said that although the last straw was the delay in the payment of overtime hours worked in the weeks following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, there were other reasons, such as the precarious situation these officers were in after their retirement plan was eliminated in 2013, as were the payments for unused sick-days.
“There has been an accumulation of abuses,” said Marin, for whom absenteeism has been a way for police to demand their rights.
Marin noted that the walk-outs were a limited but necessary way to demand their rights and were being implemented due to the inaction of the newly replaced police chief.
Puerto Rican police officers have gone years requesting better pay, but the response of the Ricardo Rossello government has been that the lack of funds makes it impossible to satisfy that demand.
The unrest only got worse after the hurricanes of September blasted the island and police had to work more than 12 hours a day.
The departure of the chief of police also comes at a time when the number of homicides is on the rise.
According to police data, a total of 28 murders have been recorded up to now in 2018, compared with 10 by the same date in 2017.