White Police chief in videotaped beating of Black man was never investigated for his role in attack

Extensive internal affairs file for Hammond Chief Edwin Bergeron has nothing on that case

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).

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Edwin Bergeron’s brother is on the civil service board. Although they share the same last name, they are not related.

HAMMOND — Police Department internal affairs documents show Chief Edwin Bergeron was never investigated for the 2017 beating of Kentdrick Ratliff, undermining statements made by Mayor Pete Panepinto that Bergeron and other officers were investigated and cleared of wrongdoing.

The Illuminator reviewed hundreds of internal documents, including Bergeron’s entire internal affairs file and found no evidence that Bergeron was investigated following the Dec. 6, 2017 incident in which Bergeron was one in a group of white officers who choked, punched, kicked, and used a Taser on Ratliff inside a HPD booking room. Ratliff, who is black, was handcuffed during most of the beating.

Bergeron’s internal affairs file contains hundreds of records detailing the investigative steps and results of every complaint and misconduct allegation that’s been made against him during his career  — whether it was considered founded or unfounded. 

It includes everything from minor inquiries done as a matter of procedure such as when Bergeron accidentally bumped into a citizen’s vehicle with his patrol car (without causing damage) to major accusations such as the allegation that he intimidated a rape victim and threatened to cover-up her case. However, the file contained no records indicating that the city investigated Bergeron for his role in Ratliff’s  beating.

The absence of records contradicts statements Mayor Panepinto made last month after a full video of the beating was leaked to the public and statements from others who claimed Bergeron was cleared of any wrongdoing, as reported by the Advocate.

Chief Bergeron did not respond to the Illuminator’s requests for comment on this story, and Mayor Panepinto would not comment when reached by phone, saying, “There’s enough out there already.”

On Aug. 31, residents packed into a gymnasium for a special Hammond City Council meeting to discuss the incident and Panepinto’s decision to choose Bergeron as chief of police even after he saw the video. Bergeron was a sergeant at the time of the incident and became chief under Panepinto’s appointment earlier this year.

In an effort to defend his appointment, Panepinto told the crowd that Hammond’s Municipal Fire & Police Civil Service board investigated and found no violations on behalf of Bergeron and the other officers. However, neither the civil service board nor the Internal Affairs Division ever investigated Bergeron because Panepinto’s office would have had to approve the inquiry, and the city has no records of any such approval.

“It came back with nothing,” Panepinto said to the crowd of residents in the gym. “It went to the civil service board. The chief was concerned more with a kick in the video.”

The “kick” Panepinto mentioned is a small part in the video during which Sgt. Thomas Mushinsky kicks Ratliff in either the groin or the leg. 

When the city received a complaint from Ratliff’s aunt after the incident, then-Chief James Stewart asked internal affairs to review the video, but according to a copy of that request, Stewart included a sentence that appears to have narrowed the investigation to only Sgt. Mushinsky.

Stewart wrote: “Midway through the video Sgt. Mushinsky arrives and seems to apply a groin kick to the subject who was already restrained. Please review for possible excessive use of force.”

The kick was the only part of the video that was investigated. Sgt. Brian McCormick led the investigation, which was overseen by Mayor Panepinto’s office. It resulted in a 90-day suspension and an 18-month rank demotion for Mushinsky.

It is our opinion that the force used by Officer Dunn and Sgt. Bergeron used during the booking process appeared excessive and borderline criminal.

—Consultants’ report on HPD beating of Kentdrick Ratliff

Mushinsky, however, appealed those findings to the civil service board, which Chief Bergeron formerly chaired as vice president. Mushinsky also hired an investigative firm, Use of Force Consultants, to review the entire incident. 

The consultants found that Mushinsky’s single kick was to Ratliff’s thigh (not groin) and was an appropriate distraction technique within acceptable levels of force. However, the consultants dedicated a considerable amount of space in their report taking aim at the actions of then-Sgt. Bergeron and Ofc. Craig Dunn, which they deemed “excessive and borderline criminal.” 

“It is our opinion that the force used by Officer Dunn and Sgt. Bergeron used during the booking process appeared excessive and borderline criminal,” the report states. “The use of force used on Ratliff before Mushinsky’s arrival on scene needs and should be investigated as Ms. Carolyn A. Ayers [Ratliff’s aunt] requested to Mr. Pete Panepinto, dated December 14, 2017.”

Notably, the consultants based their findings solely on the information and evidence provided by the City of Hammond and its police officers. They did not speak to Ratliff or his attorney.

Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto at a city council meeting. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator. Monday, Sept. 7, 2020).

The report helped Mushinsky in his appeal. The civil service board overturned the internal affairs finding. Still, after viewing the entire video of the incident and receiving the strongly-worded findings from the consultants, the mayor awarded Bergeron with an extraordinary promotion, from sergeant to chief of police — a leap that skipped over several ranks and the many years of experience that other police chief candidates had.

With the recent release of this and other information surrounding the incident, the city council earlier this month voted to order a third-party investigation into the beating and its alleged coverup. Councilors also formally asked the mayor to fire Bergeron, but Mayor Panepinto has so far rebuffed that request.

Bergeron’s personnel file contains a history of complaints, some of which accuse him of using excessive levels of force against citizens for seemingly minor infractions of the law.

In a 2003 incident, Prairieville resident Scott Reynolds said Bergeron repeatedly struck him on the head with a nightstick and then cited him for “disturbing the peace” in the parking lot of Chevy’s night club.

According to the internal affairs file, Reynolds got between two other men in an attempt to break up a fight. He was struck from the side and knocked to the ground. In his complaint, Reynolds wrote that he wrestled with the man and then felt multiple additional blows to the back of his head before ending up in the back of a police car. He wrote that he didn’t recognize any of the people and only later learned from his friends that it was a police officer who was beating him in the head with a nightstick.

I kept feeling blows to the back of my head.

—Scott Reynolds recounting how Bergeron beat him with a nightstick

Reynolds had two witnesses corroborate his account. They wrote that an officer ran up to the wrestling men, yelled “Hammond PD” and suddenly started beating both men with a nightstick without warning. The officer began hitting the man who was on top of Reynolds. Then when the pair rolled over, the officer struck Reynolds numerous times with the nightstick, according to the witness statements. One of the witnesses gave a description that matched Bergeron’s appearance.

Despite the injuries and stitches to the back of Reynolds’ head and sworn statements from the witnesses, the city closed the internal investigation with no action taken against Bergeron. The reason, according to the file, is they claimed Reynolds “was being deceptive” when subjected to a voice analysis “lie detector” and asked if he knew who struck him in the back of the head and “Did you see Officer Bergeron strike you on your head with a night stick?” 

Reynolds had told officers that he was unable to see the person who was striking him in the back of the head. 

In February 2001, the city opened an internal investigation against Bergeron after a Southeastern Louisiana University student accused him of covering up her rape and intimidating her into not reporting it to law enforcment. The woman reportedly told several friends that she woke up naked in a Delta Tau Delta fraternity house with no memory of the night before and wondered if she had been drugged and raped. According to the internal affairs report, the woman told friends that an off-duty Hammond police officer named Edwin confronted her, accused her of lying and told her if she reported the incident, he would make sure it was covered up.  She did not know the officer’s last name but knew that he was a fraternity brother of the main suspect. 

The woman never filed a police report but did report the incident to a university counselor. Weeks later, she committed suicide in East Baton Rouge Parish and left details of the rape in a suicide note, prompting the internal investigation. Bergeron admitted to being a Delta Tau Delta alumnus but denied the conversation ever took place and claimed to have no knowledge of the rape incident.

The Internal Affairs Division never cleared Bergeron of wrongdoing but nevertheless closed the case, citing a lack of direct evidence.

“Upon compilation and review of all information obtained, it appears that this case could possibly have some merit, but without being able to question [the victim], this case cannot be further substantiated,” IA investigator Lt. Salvador Mike wrote in his summary findings.

This case wasn’t the first time Bergeron’s fraternity connections came up in an internal affairs inquiry. In October 2000, internal affairs investigated and disciplined Bergeron for negotiating an off-the-books security detail at a Delta Tau Delta party where alcohol was served. Bergeron served as a middle-man, brokering the price and other details between two fellow officers and his fraternity brothers, according to the file.

While police officers routinely work extra-duty security details to supplement their income, HPD policy requires that such extra-duty be authorized by the department’s Extra Duty Division. Bergeron neglected to follow that policy, thus earning a 15-day suspension as a result.

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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.