An expert on police use of force is calling this incident one of the 'most abusive and unnecessary' he has ever seen

One of the nation’s leading experts in police procedure told the Hammond City Council on Tuesday that video of white police officers subduing a handcuffed Black man inside the department’s booking room is “one of the most abusive uses of force” he has ever investigated.

Council members have renewed talk of calling on Hammond’s mayor to fire Police Chief Edwin Bergeron, who was a sergeant at the time and one of the officers in the video. The FBI was reportedly referred the incident that followed the Dec. 6, 2017, arrest of Kentdrick Ratliff for obstructing a sidewalk, but the status of that remains unclear. Officers found a bottle of pills in Ratliff’s car, which he later said was prescription medication to treat his anxiety.

The city council heard a summary of findings Tuesday from an investigation they pursued 16 months ago after the Hammond Police Department’s internal affairs department and Mayor Pete Panepinto refused to hold the officers accountable. A Baton Rouge law firm was hired to look into the case, and it brought in Seth Stoughton, an attorney and former police officer who teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

A specialist in police procedure and criminal law, Stoughton has testified in state and federal courts across the country as a police use-of-force expert, most recently as a prosecution expert in the 2021 trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was ultimately convicted for killing George Floyd.

Stoughton attended Tuesday’s council meeting in person to present his findings, which included his conclusions on 10 uses of force against Ratliff.

While sitting handcuffed next to a desk in the booking room, Ratliff suddenly reached for the pill bottle that was left unsecured on the desk, sparking an immediate response from the two officers in the room, Bergeron and Craig Dunn.

Bergeron did not respond to the Illuminator’s attempts to reach him for comment.

Of the 10 uses of force seen in the video, Stoughton said only two were reasonable in light of the circumstances. He deemed the remaining eight “unreasonable and excessive,” with up to four “egregiously unreasonable and excessive” actions that could constitute criminal acts.

One of the worst, Stoughton said, occurred at the end of the incident when Dunn stomped Ratliff’s face five times while Ratliff was lying on his side with his hands cuffed behind him.

“This is egregiously unreasonable,” Stoughton said. “It is among the most abusive uses of force I’ve seen in reviewing I can’t even tell you how many cases.”

This same language is repeated in Stoughton’s 158-page investigative report when describing Dunn’s actions.

“Dunn’s stomping on or kicking Mr. Ratliff in the face five times while he was handcuffed and laying on his side, fully under the control of officers, ranks among the most abusive and unnecessary uses of force that I have ever reviewed.”

Uses of force detailed

Policing expert Seth Stoughton said Hammond police officers employed the following uses of force, listed in chronological order during suspect Kentdrick Ratliff’s booking in December 2017 at the police station:

  1. Then-Sgt. Edwin Bergeron and Officer Craig Dunn Nine delivered nine closed-fist punches to Ratliff’s face and body while Ratliff was handcuffed lying face-up on top of the desk, leading him to fall through the desk to the ground.
  2. Dunn kicked Ratliff in the neck.
  3. Dunn placed Ratliff in a “guillotine” choke hold after one of the handcuffs came off Ratliff’s right wrist. Such a choke hold is considered in policing as an “application of deadly force,” Stoughton said.
  4. Bergeron struck Ratliff in the torso with a knee while Dunn held Ratliff, deemed reasonable.
  5. Officer Storm Tabor shocked Ratliff in the back and leg multiple times with a stun gun, deemed reasonable.
  6. Ratliff was kept in a prone position for a prolonged period of time after being resecured in handcuffs.
  7. An officer, believed to be Dunn, knelt on Ratliff’s neck while the suspect lay prone and handcuffed.
  8. Officer Thaddeus Gautier employed a “gooseneck” wristlock, a pain compliance technique, while Ratliff was handcuffed and prone with his arms elevated behind his back.
  9. Sgt. Thomas Mushinsky kicked Ratliff in either the groin or thigh long after he was secured with handcuffs and under the control of two officers.
  10. Dunn stomped or kicked Ratliff’s face five times while he was handcuffed.

Ratliff was then taken to a hospital for medical treatment. His medical records reflected a facial laceration, missing teeth, blood on his face and a wound to his back.

Stoughton recommended the city council refer the matter to law enforcement for potential criminal prosecution of the officers. Another significant recommendation was to hire an outside firm to conduct a comprehensive review of the Hammond Police Department and its operations.

Stoughton also noted that written reports from officers involved in the Ratliff incident omitted most of their use of force actions. One officer testified that Bergeron instructed him to not file a report, even though department policy and general practice required him to do so.

An internal affairs investigation Mayor Panepinto ordered looked only into whether Sgt. Mushinsky kicked Ratliff in the groin or thigh. None of the other officers were investigated, according to documents the Illuminator obtained.

After receiving those key findings Tuesday, several council members moved to amend the meeting’s agenda to add a resolution to request the mayor fire the police chief. The motion required a unanimous vote, and council members Carlee Gonzales and Steven Leon opposed it.

“When you do something like this, you’re leaving the citizenship entirely out of the loop,” Leon said, explaining his opposition to the motion.

Council members indicated they would bring the resolution in the near future. The council approved an identical resolution in September 2020, prior to Stoughton’s investigation. Gonzales and Leon voted against it..

“Watching that video, there really shouldn’t be much more to see,” Councilman Sam DiVittorio said. “That video, it was disturbing and disgusting.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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