EAST LANSING, Mich. — Hoping to curb Puerto Rico's soaring murder rate, the Justice Department has tapped a renowned team of homicide investigators led by a Michigan State University criminologist to help the island's police force.
Plagued by drug and gang violence, Puerto Rico's homicide rate of 29 per 100,000 people is nearly six times higher than that of the continental United States. Further, police in the U.S. territory solve only about 25 percent of homicides, well below the mainland clearance rate of about 75 percent, said David Carter, MSU professor of criminal justice.
Carter's team is working directly with Puerto Rican police – including visiting homicide scenes – to improve investigation techniques and practices, aiming to solve more homicides and, ultimately, bring down the murder rate. The eight-member team, which includes police homicide investigators and forensic science specialists from across the United States, completed a similar mission in New Orleans in 2010.
"This works. We've seen it work," said Carter, a former police officer. "But you have to change the way the organization does business."
The initiative, which started recently and should be completed by the end of summer 2013, is funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the Justice Department that provides training and technical help to criminal justice agencies.
The initiative includes training Puerto Rico's various police units to collaborate. Carter said many drive-by homicides include a stolen car, for example, so auto-theft investigators should be more involved in the murder investigation. Similarly, gang-prevention officers can help homicide investigators solve gang murders and even prevent retaliation killings.
More than half of Puerto Rico's 1,117 homicides in 2011 – that's about one person killed every eight hours – are believed to have been drug related, according to a recent Bloomberg editorial.
Puerto Rican police also need to establish better ties to the community if they're going to solve more homicides, Carter said. "If the people don't trust you, they're not going to talk to you," he said. "And if they don't talk to you, you're probably not going to solve the homicide."
Other changes could include shifting beat cops to higher crime areas and re-assigning officers to crime scene investigation duties, Carter said. While Puerto Rico has a decent sized police force of about 16,000 officers, it also has a poverty rate of 45 percent and lacks many of the resources that most U.S. police agencies take for granted.
Carter, who also led a federally funded effort to train U.S. police to fight terrorism, said his goal is to increase the rate at which homicides are solved in Puerto Rico to 65 percent reduce and reduce the homicide rate to below 20 per 100,000 people.
"By continental U.S. standards, that's still subpar," Carter said, "but compared to where they are at now it would be a huge improvement."
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