screenshot from video

Screenshot from a video that shows use of force

HAMMOND  The city council approved the mayor's appointment for chief of police Tuesday night despite controversies over a use-of-force video and a rape case lawsuit that have shaken some residents' confidence in his choice.

The Hammond City Council voted 4-1 in favor of Edwin Bergeron, a 19-year department veteran who was the sole candidate offered by Mayor Pete Panepinto, making Bergeron the mayor's third chief during slightly more than four years in office. 

Council member Kip Andrews cast the lone "no" vote.

During about an hour of public discussion, Bergeron received strongly worded endorsements and denouncements. But the council members revealed little of their opinions.

"The video, we all saw it. You all got your opinion," said council member Devon Wells. "I known this guy from seeing him, from him dealing with me, and from him working around me and being in the community."

Panepinto said Bergeron has a proven record of innovation and leadership, the ability to understand different perspectives, and the knowledge that comes with having served on the civil service board. The mayor noted Bergeron had turned down opportunities in the past to leave for other jobs.

Bergeron received endorsements from a string of officers who described him as a devoted and highly regarded officer who has the support of the department.

Lt. Wayne Scivicque said he supervises Bergeron now, and he can rely on Bergeron all the time. He said Bergeron would make a great chief. 

"Brother, we love you, and we stand by you," Scivicque said, eliciting a round of applause from the audience.

Some residents criticized Bergeron based on a leaked 30-second video posted recently on social media. The video shows two officers, including Bergeron, speaking with a handcuffed suspect in an interview room when the suspect appears to lunge across the table. The officers struggle with the suspect on top of the table for several seconds before the table breaks and the suspect falls through.

"I’m disturbed by the video I saw," said Ronald Valentine, a minister who spoke at the meeting. "Whether it was cut-and-pasted, the video was real and to see a man being beaten, handcuffed; I have a problem with that."

The incident was reviewed by internal affairs and the FBI, according to a number of people who spoke at the meeting, and Bergeron was cleared. The mayor has described the video as an incomplete account.

Other residents mentioned a 2002 lawsuit that accused Bergeron, a Hammond police officer at the time, of trying to dissuade a college student from filing rape charges against one of Bergeron's fraternity brothers. The woman died by suicide two months after the rape. The suit was settled for a confidential sum.

Bergeron said at a public hearing Monday that he can definitely understand the concerns surrounding the suicide but said he took multiple lie detector tests at the time.

“It’s unfortunate it happened; I feel for the family but I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he told the crowd.

Council President Carlee White Gonzales said she took the lawsuit seriously. But she did her own investigation and felt confident in voting for Bergeron.

She added in an interview after the meeting that she would have liked to see additional candidates. But she was impressed by the support Bergeron had from residents and officers.

Bergeron said after the meeting that he will focus on community policing.

The police chief position was vacated in January when Panepinto met with former chief James Stewart, citing “philosophical differences.” The mayor said at the time that Stewart wasn’t fired but refused to characterize his departure. Stewart has since sued the city for wrongful termination.

Stewart replaced longtime police chief Roddy Devall, whom Panepinto fired in November 2015 following an investigation into his handling of an officer's arrest.

Devall sued the city over his termination, which a district judge overturned. The case was ultimately settled, but Devall did not return to his old job.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.