Guest Author – July 2023

Larry Coggins

Larry Coggins
State Executive Director
MADD Florida State Office
Familiar Territory in a New Land

Over two years ago, MADD Florida was introduced to Melissa Ramirez, an attorney in San Juan, Puerto Rico who was managing Puerto Rico’s SFST Program.  Instructors from the University of North Florida’s world renowned Institute of Police Technology & Management (IPTM), some of which were active and retired officers from Florida, were there teaching DUI investigation skills and roadside exercises and came back to the states with the information that if there was any new ground for MADD to cover, this Caribbean paradise some 1,800 miles east of Florida was the place to be!  Not because of the beautiful beaches and the sapphire waters, but because of the fact that 3.2 million citizens who an overwhelming majority have connections to the United States, but the face that Puerto Rico’s seventy-eight provinces, seventy-four with their own police department, do not focus on traffic enforcement or see the connection between traffic safety and public safety.  An all too familiar story here in the states, but with the link between Puerto Rico and the states, obviously the link to Florida, we recognized quickly that our prevention work was needed in the community and our ability to change the law enforcement culture was too.

  In my twenty-five years in Florida law enforcement, I lost count on how many times a crash investigation involved someone from Puerto Rico who was visiting the Sunshine State, or someone living in Florida and their next of kin resided in Puerto Rico.  In crashes where impairment was involved, MADD Florida was already providing victim services to the families in the states, and in some instances advice and help over the phone back to the island, so we knew we were needed in a place where the drinking age is eighteen and where alcohol industry giants like Don Q., Bacardi, and Medalla are household names and a place with a city named Catano which translated in English is “Cathedral of Rum”.  If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?

  Years of Work Completed in Months

  Fast forward approximately six months, and MADD Florida leadership was successful in securing a federal grant through Puerto Rico’s Traffic Safety Commission for four fulltime MADD staff members, a few meetings with senior government officials celebrating the MADD brand coming to the island, an impromptu visit to the Governor of Puerto Rico at the Governor’s Mansion, hiring Melissa as the local Executive Director responsible for MADD operations in Puerto Rico, and an exhaustive search of talent resulted in hiring Tatiana Coriano, Nileny Ortiz-Munoz, Limaris Ortiz-Quiles, and Jatnaely Vega-Arocho as full-time MADD Program Specialist responsible for MADD’s education and community outreach programs.  A nod from the Puerto Rico Department of Education, making our materials part of the elementary school prevention and health curriculum, certainly opened doors as well!

  Culture Shock

  While the hard data on impairment related crashes is difficult to decipher due to Puerto Rico’s stance on alcohol and the lack of many laws and techniques, we had to rely on anecdotal evidence, some from the public, some from the Traffic Safety Commission, and some from the law enforcement officers themselves who want to work in traffic, and come up with a plan on how to change the culture of traffic law enforcement and break into the more than seventy-eight agencies, all of this in addition to our already impactful community outreach and education program that has gained incredible traction.

  Our plan included dedicating a portion of Program Specialist Jatnaely Vega-Arocho’s time to strictly getting in front of the officers themselves.  Her presentation included MADD’s work in the states with law enforcement, why DUI enforcement is needed and how it relates to overall public safety, and techniques used stateside for a successful program.  This role to liaison with the law enforcement community, was blessed and funded by the Traffic Safety Commission has allowed Jatnaely to represent the MADD brand as well as the Commission’s overall support to this very important cause.  The plan also includes Melissa’s role in building partnerships with the agency heads and facilitating the relationship between our brand and their established departments, being sensitive to their culture, but also laying the ground work that we can work together to promote fair and equitable traffic enforcement, work to prevent impaired driving together, and save lives.

  Today and Beyond

  As of this writing, the ink is drying on the very first Partnership Agreement between the Police Commission of Puerto Rico and MADD proclaiming our mutual support for one another and the Inaugural MADD Puerto Rico Town Hall is taking place where a panel of local leaders, to include Lieutenant Elvis Zeno-Santiago of Puerto Rico’s State Police Highway Patrol, discuss the issues of impaired driving, prevention, and legislative issues, and the first MADD law enforcement only newsletter to the agencies in Puerto Rico has hit the streets.

  In less than two years, we have built a team of five highly talented and dedicated resident of Puerto Rico who have established our presence on the island.  MADD Puerto Rico’s social media has gained momentum to allow our messaging to cross generations, and our team has put up incredible numbers where the outreach in the community and the presence in schools, businesses, and government agencies rival their peers in the states!

  In the coming months we anticipate staff growth in Puerto Rico to include a Victim Service Specialist, renewal of the Traffic Safety Commission grant, MADD signature events, and While the road ahead is long, in Puerto Rico and across the USA, our mission stands and we will continue to work until we are a nation, and island of #NoMasVictimas


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