Council votes unanimously for review, 3-2 on removing Bergeron
While a unanimous Hammond City Council approved seeking an independent outside investigation into a 2017 booking room video that shows an altercation involving a suspect and several Hammond Police officers including now-Hammond Police Chief Edwin Bergeron, the Council remained divided 3 to 2 to send a resolution urging Mayor Pete Panepinto to fire Bergeron at this time.
In a more than three-hour-long marathon session, the Council agreed to send the entirety of the footage, described as a 13-minute booking room video, to an independent, outside source for review to determine what happened and any improprieties in that incident. The footage has allegedly been reviewed by the FBI previously and may be under a second review, based on information shared with the Council Tuesday night by City Attorney Andre Coudrain.
Coudrain outlined a history of the city’s review of the booking room case, indicating that it was sent to FBI by then-Chief James Stewart, a former federal investigator himself. Hammond officials say they believe the review did not offer any potential criminal issues, and the case was then referred to the city’s Civil Service Board, which did not discipline Bergeron, nor any other officer in the video.
Coudrain said recent attention has apparently prompted another review by the FBI, and he said he spoke with an investigator who is actively looking into the matter.
The council’s motion does not specifically call for an FBI review but calls for an “independent” review by an “outside” team. Several citizens, both in-person and via YouTube, suggested the Council send the footage to State Police; however, at least one speaker indicated that because of Bergeron’s ties to other Louisiana law enforcement that would not work.
Bergeron did not address his accusers in this setting, although he remained on site and appeared to be actively listening to all of the comments during Tuesday’s session.
While speakers debated whether the chief should be removed or whether the city should simply move toward a voter-elected police chief, the council split on whether or not they needed to ask for the mayor to dismiss Bergeron. The three member block of Kip Andrews, Sam DiVittorio, and Devon Wells voted for Wells’ resolution to urge Panepinto to dismiss Bergeron while attorney Carlee White Gonzales and Steve Leon voted against the resolution. Prior to the vote, a Hammond Police representative in full uniform asked if Panepinto would consider the proposal. Panepinto signaled he would not.
“If this isn’t going anywhere, let’s start tonight. Help us (Hammond Police) get better,” the officer, identified as Bergeron’s “assistant” told the five-member council. She also asked the council and the crowd what “if we were all judged by the worst five seconds of (our lives over) the last three years.”
Former coroner’s investigator Steve Raacke, a longtime law enforcement officer, described Bergeron as a “Godly man” who broke bread with truckers at the local truck stop and offered prayer before their meals.
“Are you better off with this man?” Raacke asked, adding that Bergeron had “solved a lot of crime and a lot of cold cases.”
Longtime resident Sandra Weary said she’d like to see a committee established to to look at the video and offer an objective review of the incident.
Pastor Terrence Lee said the issue is about accountability. He described himself as a friend, a “brother” with the Mayor, but he was deeply bothered by the content of the booking room video. He called the outrage from what he described as injustice as “building a time time bomb in this city, a major time bomb” and he urged a review and amendments to the Hammond Charter, if necessary, to develop a chief’s position that would be elected, not appointed.