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Recent incidents cast doubt on Hammond police accountability, critics say

A recent traffic stop in Hammond, Ind. that led to accusations of excessive force is part of a national debate over how to hold police accountable

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Lilly the dog

Lilly the dog

Activists will rally in Hammond, Indiana this weekend to highlight concerns about police brutality.

A controversial traffic stop there led to accusations of excessive force and has become part of a national debate over how to hold police accountable. Critics say that case and another recent incident shows that Hammond’s system for policing the police is broken.

“There needs to be a fair, transparent process in place for citizens to voice their concerns especially when they have a complaint against the police,” says attorney Trent McCain, who is based in Merrillville, Indiana.

McCain is representing Norma Maldonado and her partner Dario Lemus in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Hammond Police Department.

The family’s 2 year old pit-bull dog Lily was shot last June by a responding police officer who was dispatched on reports that a dog was loose.

Police say the dog lunged at Officer Timothy Kreischer, which justified shooting the animal.

Maldonado disputes that claim.

“Lily was running at me and I can see the blood all over her. That’s when he started to lower his gun and I just started screaming ‘why did you shoot my dog? Why did you shoot her?’ He was frozen for a while and just staring at us, like he didn’t know what to say,” Maldonado said. “I was screaming why did you shoot her? He said because she was loose. I said ‘no she wasn’t.’”

Maldonado says her house was protected by an invisible fence system, which the city says is prohibited in Hammond because they can fail.

The dog survived after thousands of dollars in veterinary care.

Maldonado, however, remains upset because she says the officer fired his weapon just a few feet from her young son.

Maldonado says she showed up at the police department to file a formal complaint against the officer, but was told she couldn’t.

“I don’t understand why I was denied that right to make the complaint against them. So, I just felt that all doors were closed for me,” Maldonado said.

McCain says he’s not sure why Maldonado was turned away from filing a complaint.

“My clients attempted to file a citizen’s complaint several times after their dog was shot within a few feet of their 7-year-old son,” McCain said. “They got the cold shoulder from the City of Hammond and received the runaround each time they tried to lodge a complaint.”

Hammond police declined to comment on the Maldonado case.

Maldonado went on to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city for the pain inflicted on the family and the officer’s alleged reckless action in shooting the dog.

McCain said all of this could’ve been avoided with a proper system for filing complaints to an independent review board.

“The police are there to protect and serve and if they are not performing their duties in the proper fashion and people are getting hurt, and their civil rights are being violated, then they need to have a voice or an opportunity to bring their complaints to the proper bodies,” McCain said.

Hammond police spokesman Lt. Richard Hoyda said citizens can lodge complaints in person, on its website or through the city’s Human Relations Commission.

A spokesman for the commission told WBEZ it recorded only two complaints this year against police and none last year.

The city wouldn’t confirm that number, but it says all complaints are investigated.

Hammond city attorney Kristina Kantar stated in a letter to WBEZ that Indiana law does not require it to release information regarding citizen complaints unless it results in disciplinary action against an officer.

That means no Hammond police officers have been suspended, demoted or fired in the past two years.

That includes officers Charles Turner and Patrick Vicari, who are named in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a Hammond couple, Lisa Mahone and Jamal Jones, who were stopped in late September for not wearing their seatbelts.

The tense, 13 minute traffic stop was captured on a cell phone by Mahone’s teenage son sitting in the back seat with his young sister. aAfter Jones repeatedly refused requests to exit the vehicle, the video shows police smashing passenger window, tasing Jones and arresting him.

Police said the officers feared that Jones might have a weapon.

The incident sparked a media frenzy, with many comparing Hammond to Ferguson, Missouri. In the weeks after the incident, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the officers would face a disciplinary hearing.

“The two officers (Vicari and Turner) are going to appear before the Board of Captains meeting. It is a disciplinary hearing, it doesn’t mean discipline is sure to follow,” McDermott told WBEZ in early November.

However, that disciplinary hearing never happened. And a few weeks later the officers were back on the street, despite the fact that the FBI still is investigating the incident.

Critics say this demonstrates the need for stronger oversight to deal with alleged police misconduct.

“There’s no infrastructure in place in Northwest Indiana that really addresses that concern,” said Dr. Gregory Jones, professor of Theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Valparaiso University professor Dr. Gregory Jones

Dr. Jones also heads the Northwest Indiana African American Alliance. The Alliance tracks possible racial profiling in areas like Valparaiso, Gary and Hammond.

“Poor people of color are often intimidated off of dealing with that issue. If we look at the Hispanic/Latino community, we look at poor African-Americans and poor whites, we need some levels of accountability there,” Jones said.

In Valparaiso, which has struggled with race relations over the years, Dr. Jones says he has a dedicated partner in addressing racial profiling in Mayor Jon Costas.

“I think the Valparaiso Police Department is a great police department. I think we can give leadership to the region in terms of a process of accountability throughout the region in relationship to these kinds of concerns,” Jones said.

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas admits his city may not face the same the same challenges as other Northwest Indiana in terms of population, crime, diversity and struggling economies.

“Clearly, it’s a much different policing environment in more urban cities and in cities the incidents of crime can be higher depending on where you’re at,” Costas said.

But regardless of a city’s challenges, Costas’ message to police officers — especially rookies — is clear and constant.

“You have a lot of authority and you have an advantage of force over others in a significant way,” Costas said. “You must carry that with humility and respect for the citizens.”

Attorney Trent McCain says having a better system of accountability in place could save cities and towns money.

“The number of lawsuits against Northwest Indiana cities and towns like Hammond can be reduced if a fair, transparent process existed where citizens can voice their complaints against police,” McCain said.

Maldonado says after her complaint about the dog shooting was dismissed she no longer felt comfortable living in Hammond and moved back to her native Cicero, Illinois.

“I loved it in Hammond. I really did,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado said she was left to explain to her children that police are there to protect them, not bring harm.

“Not all cops are bad. There are a bunch of bad apples out there but not all of them are bad and it’s sad that to this day we never had an apology from them, and that’s all I really asked for in the beginning and they never gave us that,” she said.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. declined to comment for this story.

Sunday’s rally to address concerns about police brutality will be held outside McDermott’s city hall office.

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