HAMMOND — The FBI is reinvestigating an alleged police brutality incident that involved Hammond Police Chief Edwin Bergeron three years ago. The FBI’s reported initial investigation into the 2017 incident cleared Bergeron of charges, but that was before the public had access to the video footage, which was recently leaked to the victim.
In a special meeting Monday, Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto told the public of the FBI’s new interest in the case.
“It was investigated,” Panepinto said. “It’s being reinvestigated, actually, by the FBI. We met with NAACP locals. We had the police chief come in and answer questions himself.”
The situation began in December 2017 when Hammond police officers saw Kentdrick Ratliff’s vehicle allegedly obstructing a sidewalk. When the officers approached his vehicle and searched inside, they reportedly found a pill bottle containing 2 grams of marijuana, 2 milligrams of Xanax and a non-narcotic medication for shingles, so they arrested Ratliff, according to the police report.
Officers took Ratliff to a booking room where everything was calm until, according to the surveillance footage, Ratliff reached for his pill bottle that was on the desk next to him. This prompted a swift and forceful reaction from several officers who were at the station at the time.
The footage shows officers wrestling him into submission on top of a desk and shocking him with a Taser while one of the officers repeatedly punches Ratliff in the face. Ratliff is soon lying face-down on the ground and appears to not be moving. Then, one officer is seen kicking him in the groin, while another repeatedly stomps on his head. One of the officers then stands with his boot on Ratliff’s neck, while another kneels on him.
The officer who repeatedly punched Ratliff in the face was current Police Chief Edwin Bergeron, who was a sergeant at the time.
Bergeron is White. Ratliff is black.
HIS REACH FOR THE PILL BOTTLE
In an interview with the Hammond Daily Star, Ratliff described what led to his decision to reach for the pill bottle on the desk.
“It was upsetting what they were trying to charge me with. They were trying to charge me with some medication that was mine,” Ratliff said.
He said he saw his name on the bottle when police confiscated it at the scene and that he told them he could get paperwork from his glove compartment to show that it was prescribed to him.
“When it’s all over and my people come with this paperwork to show you that it’s mine, y’all would have to let this situation go. Y’all are trying to charge people with narcotics or something, and I don’t know, I reacted,” Ratliff said. “My anxiety kicked in. It was anxiety medicine, and I feel like my anxiety kicked in at that moment.”
Ratliff was booked on additional charges, including disarming a police officer, resisting an officer violently, and criminal damage to property. Most of the charges were later dismissed, but Ratliff took a plea bargain on misdemeanor marijuana possession and resisting arrest, prompting his immediate release from a four-month stint in the Tangipahoa Parish jail.
Finally freed to go home, Ratliff then began searching for footage of the beating.
MAYOR ‘HID THE VIDEO’
Initially, Ratliff could only find small snippets of the video.
In 2019, someone leaked a 30-second clip of the footage that showed only part of the beating. It left out some of the worst parts, but it was enough to garner some attention from the community.
City council members held a special meeting in March 2019 to discuss Bergeron’s involvement in the 30-second clip because Bergeron was a candidate for the open police chief job at that time, and it was expected Mayor Panepinto would soon appoint him and request the council’s ratification.
Panepinto and Bergeron were former business partners. According to filings at the Louisiana Secretary of State, the two men were listed as officers of P&B Investments of Hammond, LLC from 2010 to 2016.
Bergeron also has a business filing with Judge Blair Edwards, the wife of Tangipahoa Sheriff Daniel Edwards. During the March 2019 meeting, Bergeron said the business with Judge Edwards is a chauffeur service in which off-duty police officers drive their own vehicles for clients. He didn’t elaborate on his now-defunct business with Panepinto. That company operated before Panepinto was mayor.
At that March 2019 meeting, Panepinto defended his decision to appoint Bergeron as chief, calling Bergeron a good leader and a 19-year veteran of the department. He said the short version of the video didn’t tell the full story, referring to a moment not seen in the short video when one of Ratliff’s hands slips free from the handcuffs while officers were subduing him, The Advocate reported in March 2019. Panepinto told the newspaper he’d seen the whole video.
Councilman Kip Andrews spoke against Bergeron as a candidate for the top cop position at the time, but the short video clip council members saw wasn’t enough to sway them, and they ratified Bergeron’s appointment in a 4-1 vote with Andrews dissenting.
Ratliff’s attorney, Ravi Shah, told WBRZ that he had long tried to get his hands on the entire uncut footage. When he made a request to the district attorney, however, the Hammond Police Department told the DA’s office that the video didn’t exist, Shah said. Then one day this summer, the entire uncut video just “landed on (Ratliff’s) doorstep,” according to the Daily Star.
The newly-leaked footage is now prompting other council members, the NAACP, and members of the community to accuse the mayor of covering up the incident.
“He hid the video from us, and he should have to answer for that,” Councilman Devon Wells said at Monday’s meeting. “The mayor and the chief knew the video existed, but again it was not shown to us, so honest and sound decisions could not have been made.”
Community activist Jermaine Luckett believes the video and report should have been made public when the incident happened. He and a handful of officers in the Hammond Police Department are all working together in hopes of getting some answers, according to a NAACP petition.
“Investigate the cover-up, exactly what happened, and let the law justly decide,” Luckett said. “Bring justice for Mr. Ratliff.”
THE MAYOR’S POSITION
At Monday’s meeting, numerous citizens, white and Black, voiced their outrage at the officers’ actions depicted in the video and the fact that the mayor still appointed Bergeron as chief after seeing the video. They called for Panepinto to explain.
Panepinto focused his comments on the city’s internal investigation and the reported first investigation by the FBI.
The chief at the time of the incident was James Stewart. While Stewart launched an internal investigation, City Attorney Andre Coudrain directed him to send the case to the FBI, the mayor said.
“It came back with nothing,” Panepinto said. “It went to the civil service board. The chief was concerned more with a kick in the video.”
The “kick” Panepinto referred to is a part in the video during which Sgt. Thomas Mushinsky kicks Ratliff in either the groin or the leg.
During the civil service review, Mushinsky and his attorney commissioned a report by Use of Force Consultants Inc. out of Texas, which was withheld from the city council before the vote to ratify the mayor’s appointment of Bergeron as chief.
The report helped Mushinsky’s defense by saying the “kick” was a trained distraction technique. However, when the report surfaced publicly, it was noticed that it also included damning remarks on Bergeron’s actions and the actions of another officer, calling the force they used “excessive and borderline criminal.”
The mayor did not comment on the report during Monday’s meeting, though he said he was in favor of suspending Mushinsky for 60 days but the civil service board did not do so.
“The civil service is very protective about firing police,” Panepinto said. “You have to do things methodically when you investigate. There’s a time frame. The officer has his Bill of Rights. There’s a lot of things that need to happen.”
Panepinto appeared to shift blame onto the civil service board and the former chief, Stewart, who vacated his position in January 2019 following a meeting with Panepinto over “philosophical differences,” according to a report by the Advocate. Stewart has denied resigning and claims he was wrongfully fired.
“It went away,” the mayor said. “That particular police chief [Stewart] resigned.”
THE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION
While Hammond city leaders met Monday evening, several Louisiana state legislators were preparing for a meeting Tuesday to discuss police brutality issues as part of the Internal Operations Subcommittee of the Police Training, Screening and De-Escalation Task Force.
The subcommittee’s primary topic was how Louisiana’s so-called “police officer bill of rights” affects internal investigations into officer misconduct. The subcommittee heard testimony from officials with the Fraternal Order of Police, the Louisiana State Police Commission, Baton Rouge Crime Stoppers, the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, and the Louisiana Police Chiefs Association.
All were experienced administrators with knowledge of law enforcement internal affairs, and their testimony was nearly unanimous when asked about a 60-day time deadline imposed by the police bill of rights.
When an officer is suspected of misconduct, there are often two parallel investigations that can occur: (1) a criminal investigation for illegal offenses; and (2) an internal affairs administrative investigation for minor policy violations.
Criminal investigations are often conducted by an outside agency, such as the FBI’s investigation into the Hammond police incident. The Louisiana State Police handles many of the criminal investigations into local police officers.
The second type of investigation is usually done internally at a police department and can result in only administrative action (e.g. suspension or termination) rather than criminal charges. The officer bill of rights limits a police department to a 60-day deadline to conduct and complete its internal investigation. On top of that, the officer is allowed 30 days to find an attorney before answering any questions, eating up half the time the department has to investigate.
Jonny Dunnam, chief of staff for Baton Rouge Police Department and the executive director of Greater Baton Rouge Crime Stoppers, pointed to these time constraints and other amendments in the officer bill of rights as major obstacles that hamper internal affairs.
“Each of the amendments has ended up handcuffing chiefs of police and administrators from disciplining their officers,” Dunnam said.
Furthermore, if an officer is disciplined, that action is often undone by the municipality’s police civil service board, the seats of which are often held by current and former officers.
Panepinto’s complaints about Hammond’s civil service board protecting officers may have merit, but he has yet to explain why he appointed Bergeron after he saw behavior that the Texas consulting company called “borderline criminal.” The mayor did not respond to a message left Wednesday, and his office has not released the internal investigation files.
The legislative task force will hold additional meetings before making any statutory recommendations.
In a phone conversation Wednesday, Wells, the councilman who accused Panepinto of hiding the video from the council, said he’s not certain the mayor will fire Bergeron because the two have been friends since childhood. “That’s why I always say don’t hire your friends,” Wells said.
It’s also unclear if the FBI actually was asked to investigate the first time. Wells said he has seen no evidence that they did.
Wells ended Monday’s meeting by telling the public that the council will vote on two primary issues at the upcoming Sept. 8 meeting: one to ask the mayor to fire the police chief, and the second to open an investigation into the mayor’s hiring of the chief.