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Disbelief by some in Hammond after accused cops are reinstated

Updated 11/25/2014 at 4 p.m.

Two Hammond, Indiana police officers involved in a controversial traffic stop that invited comparisons to Ferguson, Missouri are back on patrol after the mayor asserted they were cleared of any wrongdoing by the FBI.

But now the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Bob Ramsey, denies that, saying the case is ongoing and the officers have yet to be cleared.

"At this point, no," Ramsey said. "The Hammond police department has been very open with us, very cooperative, very forthcoming through this entire process. They have provided us information pertaining to the events that happened on the day of question. However, we are still in the process of gathering additional information and a review is not complete at this point."
 
Asked to respond, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. is sticking to his guns.
 
He says he received a letter on Sunday from another FBI agent that the officers were cleared and it was appropriate to put them back on patrol.
 
Officers Patrick Vicari and Charles Turner, who are white, were caught on video smashing a window and tasing an unarmed black passenger during an incident that stirred outrage at both the local and national level.
 
The news of their reinstatement came just hours before a Grand Jury decided not to indict the police officer at the center of events in Ferguson.
 
“Now that we received the results back from the FBI, I made the decision, we made the decision to place both of these officers back on duty,” McDermott. said Monday afternoon. “They will be back on duty immediately.”
 
Lavance Turner, a student at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, was perplexed by the decision.

“I really do believe that was a complete violation of any and everything regarding [the passenger’s] personal well being and how they went about it,” Turner said.

He and fellow student Michael Carson reacted to the news while watching the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement on TV in the student center on campus.

“You see that! They’re about to riot. No indictment?” said the 22-year-old Carson moments after the decision was read by the prosecutor in St. Louis County, Missouri.

The two students were equally baffled that criminal charges weren’t filed against the two Hammond police officers who had been on desk duty the past few weeks.

The case stemmed from an incident on Sept. 24 when Lisa Mahone, a black motorist was pulled over for not wearing her seatbelt.

Officers Vicari and Turner stopped Mahone, 27, on 169th Street near Cline Avenue in the city’s Hessville neighborhood.

The officers’ attention quickly turned to a front seat passenger in the car, 42-year-old Jamal Jones. They ordered him to produce identification and get out of the car. After Jones spent several tense minutes trying to explain he had no I.D. and refusing to exit the vehicle, officers smashed the passenger window, used a taser and arrested Jones.

Much of the incident was recorded on a cell phone by Mahone’s 14-year-old son in the backseat. A young girl also sitting in the rear of the vehicle is heard crying in the video.

The video went viral and Purdue Cal student Lavance Turner says he watched it dozens of times on social media.

“You can’t really resist physically if you’re in your own car. So, I don’t understand if the officer felt threatened. It was really strange,” he said.

A Hammond police spokesman said the officers feared for their safety when one officer said he saw Jones drop his hands behind the center console of the vehicle.

Mayor McDermott was steadfast in his defense of Officers Turner and Vicari.

“If we condone this type of behavior and make it so that every time a person who is pulled over for a seat belt violation or anything else that it can drag on for 15 or 20 minutes for something as simple as someone handing over an ID,” McDermott said.  “If that’s the America that we’re heading towards, that’s not going to be an ideal place to live.”

Lisa Mahone and Jamal Jones filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Hammond Police Department.

Their attorney, Dana Kurtz, says McDermott is part of the problem.

“It’s not just officers engaging in excessive force, it’s police departments and, especially in this case, the mayor of the city of Hammond, condoning what these officers did,” Kurtz said. “That just encourages this kind of conduct to continue.”

McDermott has long rejected the comparisons to Ferguson by pundits. But he says the incident has impressed upon him that he needs to work closer with the city’s African-American population.

“I don’t think there are any winners or losers in this. I can tell you the Mayor of Hammond has heard the frustrations loud and clear,” McDermott said.

The Hammond chapter of the NAACP is pushing the city to hire more African American police officers. Currently, the Hammond Police Department has 9 black officers out of a force of 151.

Blacks account for 20 percent of Hammond’s 80,000 residents.

“The (African-American) numbers in the Hammond Police Department are too low and I’m going to fix that,” McDermott said.

Rev. Homer Cobb, head of Hammond’s NAACP, said he always had his doubts about whether the FBI actually cleared the officers, and he still thinks the controversial traffic stop could’ve been better handled.

But Cobb adds he appreciates the dialogue that’s been established with the mayor and police department since then.

“I wouldn’t consider Hammond to be as volatile as Ferguson but there’s every bit of a concern all across the nation because we’re dealing with profiling and events happening without accountability,” Cobb said. “What we want is a better Hammond.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that the FBI had cleared the two police officers of any wrongdoing. That was according to Hammond mayor Tom McDermott, Jr. The story has now been updated with direct comment from the FBI.

 

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