Hammond Police Chief James Stewart is out as the city’s top law enforcement officer following a meeting Thursday with Mayor Pete Panepinto at which Stewart says the mayor told him he wasn’t happy with his job performance.
The mayor says he had “philosophical differences” with Stewart.
"I'm disappointed because I really wanted to stay longer to do a better job," Stewart said in an interview Friday. "I was working hard in 2018, and I wanted to carry that steam into 2019."
Stewart said the mayor told him when they met on Thursday that he would be replaced at the end of January. Stewart, who turns 60 on Saturday, said he asked to be dismissed immediately rather than "prolonging the agony."
The mayor said in an interview that Stewart wasn't "fired" but refused to give an exact characterization of his departure.
Said Stewart: "If you want to call it a resignation, it's forced resignation."
In a statement, Panepinto said he called the police chief to a meeting to "discuss changes in the department due to our philosophical differences."
"I had hoped for a smoother transition in leadership, but Chief Stewart has chosen to leave his position immediately. The chief and I spoke this morning, and I thanked him for his service and wished him the best going forward," the mayor's statement Friday said.
Stewart said the mayor was not specific about his alleged shortcomings, saying only that he was not happy with how Stewart was running the department.
“I wasn’t moving the department in the direction he was hoping it would be in," Stewart said.
Panepinto appointed Stewart as police chief in June 2016. The City Council confirmed him on a 4-0 vote with a salary of $82,000 per year.
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 and Devall did not return to his old job. However, Stewart said, the issue clouded his first year in office.
Before joining the Hammond Police Department, Stewart worked for 21 years with the FBI. He defended his short tenure in Hammond as "above average."
“I think I did the job as well as could be expected for someone who was brought in from the outside for less than two years,” he said.
Stewart pointed to the lack of any murders in the city during 2018, although he acknowledged there had been a general increase in other crimes.
He said the patrol division had ups and down, but noted that his officers were effective in solving some key burglaries through the Christmas season.
Stewart also touted his accessibility to the public, saying he made himself available for meetings with homeowners associations and people in the private sector.
Stewart said he did not believe the arrests of five officers over the past year — four related to a payroll fraud investigation and one for alleged sex crimes — had an impact on the mayor's view of him.
Panepinto was elected to a second term as mayor in November. A search for a new police chief is now underway, the mayor said. Assistant Chief Thomas Corkern will direct and supervise the operation of the Police Department as senior officer of the department, a city official said.
Two members of the incoming city council reached by phone Friday said they were surprised by the mayor's decision and did not know the basis for it.
"I had no idea it was headed this way or what happened to bring it to this point," said Kip Andrews, who was elected last year to represent District 1 and will be sworn in Tuesday. "I do respect the former chief and the job he did."
Andrews said he would like to see the mayor appoint a new chief who is progressive and committed to community policing.
Sam Divittorio, who was elected to the District 4 seat in November, said he also was not anticipating the mayor's decision and that the mayor has yet to explain it to the new council. But he does see a need for better policing in the city.
He said that in his door-knocking during the campaign the No. 1 concern was crime, especially "petty crimes" such as break-ins and theft and a lack of patrols.
“Being a resident of the city of Hammond, what I see on my everyday aspect is some areas that need to be improved on in law enforcement," he said.