It has been three years since Hammond police officers’ attempts to restrain a partially handcuffed suspect turned violent.
The surfacing of the entire video of the incident as recorded by the security camera in the jail booking room has led community members and outsiders to call for action. Questions have been raised as to why no disciplinary actions were found necessary and why one of the officers involved was promoted to chief.
With the city council expected to vote on a resolution calling for the removal of Police Chief Edwin Bergeron Jr. at their upcoming meeting, it is time to look back on how Hammond got here.
Dec. 6, 2017
Hammond police officers approach Kentdrick Dwight Ratliff, of New Orleans, for a traffic stop outside Alesa Dangerfield’s house in Hammond after they allegedly see his vehicle obstructing a sidewalk.
Officers search Ratliff’s car and find two milligrams of Xanax, two grams of marijauna and a “legend drug.” Ratliff alleges the Xanax is his prescription for anxiety and the “legend drug” is actually shingles medication. He and his brother-in-law are arrested and brought to Hammond police station on a drug charge.
Around 7:21 p.m., Sgt. Edwin Bergeron and Officer Craig Dunn are processing paperwork in the booking room while Ratliff sits on a bench, hands handcuffed. The pill bottles confiscated from Ratliff sit on top of the desk. Ratliff lunges forward, still handcuffed, and tries to grab the medication. Officers allege Ratliff is trying to dispose of the evidence, and Ratliff alleges he is trying to get the medicine for his anxiety.
The surveillance video shows the officers delivering several punches to his head and hands before pinning him against the booking desk and then in the booking desk as he falls through. Other officers, including Thad Gautier, Thomas Mushinsky, Storm Tabor and Jennifer Payne and Officer Craig Golman rush in throughout the development of the incident.
According to the Use of Force Consultants’ report, Ratliff gets out of one of the handcuffs, and officers try to gain control by kicking and punching him. After Ratliff continues to resist putting his hands behind his back for the officers to re-cuff him, Dunn places him in a guillotine choke, and Bergeron knees him in the stomach. Tabor tases him in the lower back and left leg.
Handcuffed and facing down, Mushinsky kicks Ratliff in the femoral motor nerve. Officers place their suspect on his back as pressure from an officer’s foot is applied to the side of his face.
Payne takes photos to document the scene as evidence and a request for an ambulance is made.
Ratliff is brought to the hospital where Gautier witnesses Ratliff’s examination of injuries, according to the Use of Force Consultants’ report.
Ratliff does not remember going to the hospital and distinctly recalls waking up the next day in the parish jail in Amite with taser hooks still in his back, he said later.
Ratliff, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges, gets out of jail after serving four months. He and advocate Jermaine Luckett reportedly search for surveillance video from the night of the incident. Small clips of the booking room incident footage surface, and the audio and video clips are pieced together and leaked to social media.
Oct. 18, 2018
Use of Force Consultants Inc., referred for Sgt. Mushinsky, releases its opinion on the booking room incident’s use of force. Based on information the consultants received, Mushinsky’s actions where he single kicked Ratliff’s femoral motor nerve point are considered “reasonable” with no actions needing to be taken against him.
Jan. 4, 2019
Mayor Pete Panepinto removes Police Chief James Stewart from office over “philosophical differences” between the two.
Feb. 8, 2019
Thirteen applicants have applied for the city’s vacant chief of police position so far. Applicants include Edwin Bergeron Jr., Quinn Bivona, Oscar Dantzler, Milton Doll, Dennis Dufour, Henry DeJean, Michael Kinler, Casey McGrew, Paul Miller, Charles Muse, Shawn Rice, Reginald Winston and Samuel Wyatt.
Panepinto voices publicly a want for the new police chief to be local and knowledgeable about the operations of the department to ensure a smooth transition.
Feb. 12, 2019
City council sets a public hearing for input about the search for the next police chief. According to minutes, Councilman Sam DiVittorio says residents’ feedback on this decision is important.
The council requests but tables an attempt to hold an executive session to evacuate the top three applicants, as identified by the mayor. During this session, the council would have reviewed applications with each candidate, evaluated their qualifications, and then issued an opinion as to each applicant’s qualifications.
As per the charter, it is disclosed that the appointment is the mayor’s decision, which would then be brought before the council for approval.
Feb. 26, 2019
The council goes into executive session at a special meeting to review and discuss litigation surrounding the dismissal of former chief, Stewart, and his lawsuit against the city.
In a regular meeting, the council votes to holding a public meeting with the mayor’s appointee, Edwin Bergeron Jr., to get public and council input. Council members ask the mayor to submit several documents to them about Bergeron at least a week before the public meeting.
According to the minutes, the following items are requested:
A detailed description of the mayor’s evaluation of the appointee;
The appointee’s education and experience;
Any and all efforts made to evaluate the background and experience of the appointee;
A summary of findings;
The appointee’s distinguished qualifications;
The reason the appointee was selected along with any and all notes, analysis and grading scales; and
Criteria used in evaluating the appointee.
As of Sept. 4, 2020, The Daily Star has not learned if all requested documentation was provided.
March 11, 2019
Fourteen citizens give input about Bergeron’s appointment at a public hearing. Several speak in support of the future chief. Some do not, bringing up the civil suit of Courtney Garza [dismissed and exonerated], the former business partnership between Bergeron and Panepinto [dissolved], and allegations involving Ratliff’s booking room video.
Mayor Panepinto says he watched Edwin grow from a 23-year-old, he has done right by his family and he has a good work ethic, according to meeting minutes.
“Edwin can motivate and gets things done,” Panepinto said.
March 12, 2019
City council votes 4-1 (with Councilman Kip Andrews opposed) to approve Bergeron’s appointment as chief with an annual salary of $81,227. Bergeron is a 20-year veteran in the department, who received the 2009 Policeman of the Year, a decade prior.
Before the council vote, members of the public voice concerns about and support for Bergeron. The video is brought up, but a fellow officer who is also in the video, Thad Gautier, says it was investigated by the FBI and Bergeron was cleared.
City Public Information Officer Lisa Lambert says the video shows only part of the incident and an investigation by the department’s internal affairs produced no charges.
June 1, 2020
As race relations in the country grow with the death of George Floyd and numerous others, Black community members and allies take to the streets locally. During the peaceful demonstration in front of Hammond police station, Chief Bergeron joins in the prayers and gives water to marchers.
June 5, 2020
Hammond police, under Chief Bergeron’s leadership, de-escalate a situation in Hammond Square after a Black man, who had placed what ended up being fake bombs around the city, drives into Target. The department took the man into custody without anyone being harmed.
June 19, 2020
Chief Bergeron participates in the local NAACP chapter’s half-day summit where police and racial issues in the community are discussed.
Aug. 11, 2020
WBRZ airs the entire 13-minutes of security camera footage, leaked by an unknown source, of the booking incident from two years prior, showing the now-chief of police and other officers in a violent altercation with Ratliff.
Ratliff has moved on with his life with his family before the full video is leaked to him.
NAACP Baton Rouge Branch gets involved and announces it is investigating various allegations surrounding Bergeron with intent to compile a report to send to the state attorney general. The branch and multiple local community members call for Bergeron’s resignation or removal as chief.
Aug. 13, 2020
City of Hammond officials release a statement, on behalf of Mayor Panepinto, reiterating that the incident and the video was reviewed by then-chief Stewart, was recommended for an internal investigation of one officer [not Bergeron] in regards to use of force, and was given to the FBI for an external investigation, which after review resulted in no action being taken against any officers.
Also in the statement is referenced the good done under Bergeron’s leadership, including the reduction of crime over the previous year, removing over 100 illegal guns off the streets since January, and officers being assigned to every school to interact with students in meaningful ways. The city statement notes it was Bergeron who established annual training for all officers in de-escalation, unconscious bias, and cultural diversity.
The statement suggests the video’s resurface is a “personal vendetta instead of a real interest in the public safety of Hammond”; however, the statement does not give any further explanation of what the personal vendetta concerns.
Aug. 24, 2020
A special meeting, which would have focused on discussing the booking room video and an investigation into Panepinto’s appointment of Bergeron as police chief, is cancelled due to weather.
Aug. 25, 2020
Lack of a quorum results in cancellation of a regular council meeting that was to include a dozen agenda items including resolutions to ask Panepinto to fire Bergeron and to start investigation of his appointment. Councilmen Kip Andrews, Sam DiVittorio and Devon Wells are not present.
While Baton Rouge NAACP gets word in advance that quorum will not be reached, Ratliff does not. He sits in the back of city hall, planning to speak during the public input period. Many Hammond officers, including those in the video, sit in surrounding rows.
Ratliff is disappointed that he and his family members who have traveled to Hammond do not get a chance to speak.
“I just was overwhelmed for them to say that it’s not gonna happen,” Ratliff said. “Me and my family will get a chance to speak.”
Aug. 31, 2020
A special public hearing for community members to discuss the booking video is rescheduled from the previous Monday and moved to the Michael J. Kenney Recreation Center.
Over 100 people attend the hearing and about 30 people speak. Most of the speakers call for the removal of Bergeron or at least another look into the investigation. Among those attending are state NAACP President Mike McClanahan, Baton Rouge NAACP President Eugene Collins, all five board members, Mayor Panepinto and city administration, Bergeron and other police officers, Ratliff and his family, and diverse community members.
Panepinto discloses that a second FBI investigation has been launched and Bergeron has already been interviewed on the matter.
Collins says the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP plans to file formal complaints with various agencies and support the city’s investigation into the “atrocity.”
Sept. 3, 2020
Hammond Police Department announces Reserve Officer Jaeda Giovingo has graduated from the Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement Academy and will instruct each Hammond police officer annually in acknowledging implicit biases and making better decisions.
The Daily Star on Wednesday asked the FBI to confirm the timeline of the agency’s involvement.
Alicia T. Irmscher, public affairs officer for the FBI’s New Orleans office replied Thursday: “Unfortunately the FBI does not confirm or deny, or otherwise provide updates, on specific investigations. This would include describing investigative steps we may or may not have taken, interviews we may or may not have conducted, and information we may or may not have learned. As a general matter, allegations of criminal conduct are reviewed by the FBI for their merit, but such a review does not necessarily result in the opening of a full investigation.”
The Daily Star has also asked the City of Hammond for documents to confirm more details related to the timeline and, as of Friday, had not received the information.
Hammond City Council will vote on a resolution calling for the removal of Bergeron at the Sept. 8 regular council meeting, as announced by Councilman Wells at the Aug. 31 special meeting.