Public outcry over a leaked use-of-force video from the Hammond police chief’s time as a booking sergeant caused council members to call for the chief’s termination Tuesday during an emotional meeting.
Edwin Bergeron was appointed as the city’s police chief in early 2019 despite concerns about the same issue then. But, at that time only a 30-second clip of the violent 2017 arrest of Kentdrick Ratliff was circulating on social media, showing the drug possession suspect handcuffed, lunging across the booking counter to grab for two bottles of pills, and two officers, one being Bergeron, tackle him to the ground.
Now, a full 12-minute video of that encounter has been leaked showing Ratliff, a Black man, being kicked, punched and Tasered multiple times while on the ground and handcuffed. Bergeron is White.
The renewed concern led to Tuesday’s meeting in which council members Devon Wells and Kip Andrews — the two Black council members — called for Bergeron’s firing. The council cannot fire the police chief because he’s appointed, but they asked for Mayor Pete Panepinto to terminate Bergeron.
Panepinto ultimately said he had no intention of firing Bergeron, but the council unanimously voted to request an independent third-party expert to review Bergeron’s involvement in the 2017 incident to determine if the use-of-force was appropriate in that instance.
It became clear during the almost four-hour meeting that the city has an undercurrent of racial tension spurring some of the heightened emotion behind the Ratliff booking incident.
Local Black pastor Terrence Lee gave an animated and emotional speech during public comment, telling the council that many in the audience are trying to solve a problem bigger than this particular use-of-force. It’s an issue of accountability, he said.
“You can fight and fight back and forth but people are hurting today and as a pastor we have to deal with that hurt; we have to take those phone calls late at night when the lights flash and your kid’s been pulled over,” he said, adding that the full video being withheld from the council before Bergeron's appointment as police chief was concerning.
“Let’s deal with the issues here at home because what you’re doing is building a time bomb in this city,” Lee said.
Ratliff himself spoke several times throughout the meeting, asking for accountability and justice.
“I’m sorry that this happened but it needs to be fixed,” Ratliff said, to a round of applause.
The council meeting room was so packed that some residents stood in a separate room at the building’s entrance watching the YouTube live feed because they couldn’t hear what was happening.
Panepinto said the reason the council didn't see the full video or reports on the use-of-force incident is because Bergeron never faced disciplinary action for the matter, so there was nothing in his file to show.
Bergeron stood quietly in the back of the room throughout the meeting but didn’t address the council or the public.
Council members say they were a fresh council at the time of recommending Bergeron’s appointment in 2019 — they’d only been in office a month — and the administration rushed the police chief decision with only one recommended candidate.
Council members Sam DiVittorio and Devon Wells both said Tuesday that the council was possibly given a resume and recommendations for Bergeron at the time, but they didn’t receive any internal affairs or use-of-force documents, nor the booking room video, pertaining to this 2017 incident.
“Here we are today dealing with this video that’s disturbing,” DiVittorio said in an interview prior to the meeting. “It does raise some concerns as to how it was handled. … I don’t think anyone with a sound mind, with eyes and ears would say that’s how you want the highest position in your department handling a situation like that.”
Several police officers, both active and retired, and the spouse of a city employee spoke in favor of Bergeron, but the majority of the public comment was seeking further investigation into the incident.