By Mike Melia
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A rookie police officer was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting an unarmed bystander last week while responding to a robbery inside a Burger King.
Investigators from the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department also have been asked by the governor to look into the shooting as part of a two-year-old probe into an alleged pattern of abuses by the Puerto Rico Police Department.
The defendant, Abimalet Natal Rivera, allegedly opened fire Sept. 22 after arriving at the restaurant and hearing another officer's gun go off by accident. One of the bullets struck 22-year-old Jose Vega in the head.
At the time he was shot, Vega was giving information about the robbers to other officers who were already on the scene, witnesses said.
Natal, who joined the force nine months ago, is charged with second-degree murder and a weapons violation, local Justice Department spokesman Fidel Rodriguez said. He faces 15 to 25 years in prison if convicted of the murder charge.
The shooting has renewed criticism in this U.S. Caribbean territory that police are poorly trained and resort to violence too quickly.
The federal civil rights investigation began in July 2008 and is focused on allegations that police officers engage in excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and discriminatory policing, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa. The probe could lead to civil litigation to push for reforms.
One of the most notorious cases involved an officer who in 2007 stood over an unarmed man and shot him three times — once in the head. That crime was captured on video and the officer was convicted of first-degree murder, but critics say other examples of abuse are commonplace even if they do not always make headlines.
William Ramirez, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Puerto Rico, said in a case last week a man was allegedly beaten inside a patrol car and then again at a police precinct.
"If true, these are very serious charges that highlight the impermissible and unlawful conduct that the ACLU has for the past six years been highlighting" before courts in the U.S. and Puerto Rico as well as the United Nations, Ramirez said.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
In response to the fatal shooting of Vega, Gov. Luis Fortuno said he would appoint a former judge to monitor the police department.