Hammond City Council votes to remove police chief seen on tape punching Black suspect

‘I stand behind my chief,’ mayor says

Hammond residents want police chief removed
A sign calls on Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto to take responsibility for his actions in an alleged coverup of a brutality incident involving Police Chief Edwin Bergeron. Residents placed several signs on the desks of city council members just prior to Tuesday's meeting. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator, Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020).

HAMMOND — In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Hammond City Council voted to initiate an investigation into the police chief’s 2017 beating of a handcuffed Black man, which consultants who study police procedures deemed “excessive and borderline criminal.” The council also voted 3-2 to ask the mayor to fire Police Chief Edwin Bergeron, but the mayor has so far refused.

Council members made their decision near the end of a long meeting in which they heard from public spectators who voiced their support or opposition to the proposals.

The beating occurred on Dec. 6, 2017 when officers Craig Dunn and Thad Gautier of the Hammond Police Department conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle that was allegedly obstructing a sidewalk, according to the Hammond Police Department incident report. They made contact with the driver, Kentdrick Ratliff, and asked to search his vehicle. Officers say they discovered an unlabeled pill bottle containing 2 grams of marijuana, 2 milligrams of Xanax and a non-controlled medication for shingles. In the incident report, the officers claimed Ratliff had no prescription for the medication.

They arrested Ratliff and took him to HPD’s booking room for processing. Surveillance footage in the booking room shows everything is calm until Ratliff stands up from a chair and reaches for the pill bottle that the officers left on a desk next to him. He managed to grab ahold of the pill bottle despite his hands being cuffed behind his back. This prompted a swift and forceful reaction from two nearby officers.

The footage shows both officers wrestling Ratliff into submission on the top of a desk. They place him on his back while striking him, causing him to fall through an opening in the top of the desk and one of his hands to slip through the handcuffs. Officer Craig Dunn places him in a guillotine choke-hold, while the other repeatedly punches Ratliff in the face and knees him in the stomach. Additional officers join the scuffle and place Ratliff’s free hand back into the handcuffs as he is held face-down on the ground and shocked with a Taser in his lower back and leg. One officer is then seen kicking Ratliff in either the inner thigh or groin, while another kicks or stomps his head. Another officer then stands with his boot on Ratliff’s neck, while another kneels on him. 

The officer who repeatedly punched Ratliff in the face and kneed him in the stomach was Edwin Bergeron, a sergeant at the time who is now the department’s chief. Bergeron is also a childhood friend and former business partner of Mayor Pete Panepinto. The mayor’s appointment of Bergeron to chief of police was unusual in law enforcement circles — because it allowed a sergeant to bypass several ranks and hold the top position with little, if any, administrative experience.

Signs call for justice in the alleged coverup of a police brutality incident involving Hammond Police Chief Edwin Bergeron. Residents placed several signs on the desks of city council members just prior to Tuesday’s meeting. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator, Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020).

As the city council considered the proposal to ask Panepinto to fire Chief Bergeron, a member of the audience walked to the podium and asked the mayor if he actually would fulfill the council’s request to fire Bergeron. The mayor said he would not fire Bergeron even if the vote was unanimous.

“I stand behind my chief,” Panepinto said.

Council members Carlee Gonzales and Steven Leon voted against the request for termination.

As for the city council’s investigation into the incident, the proposal was an agenda item written by Councilman Kip Andrews, who said the investigation will be conducted by a neutral third party and will seek to address why the mayor never gave council members the full-length video footage.

After Ratliff was released from jail, he began searching for video of the beating but could only find small snippets. In 2019, someone leaked a 30-second clip of the footage, but it left out some of the worst parts. The council had access to only this shortened version when they ratified the mayor’s appointment of Sgt. Bergeron to chief of police.

Both Andrews and Councilman Devon Wells have both said the mayor had access to the full video at the time he appointed Bergeron. Also at that time, the mayor had access to a report from Use of Force Consultants, a firm that provides expert witness testimony for incidents in which police officers use physical or deadly force against a person.

The report contains multiple references to the actions of Bergeron and Dunn, calling them “excessive and borderline criminal” because “Ratliff was of no threat to officers” at the time: “It is our opinion that the force used by Officer Dunn and Sgt. Bergeron used during the booking process appeared excessive and borderline criminal. In terms of resistance by Ratliff, it was classified as defensive resistance.

Hammond Mayor
Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto speaks at a city council meeting. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator, Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020).

“Defensive resistance” is when someone prevents an officer’s control but not with the intent to harm the officer.

The report’s final sentence notes that the use of force by Bergeron and Dunn “needs and should be investigated.”

At a meeting last week, Mayor Panepinto told the public that the department’s internal affairs division along with the FBI had already investigated the incident and cleared Bergeron of wrongdoing.

 

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.