Hammond mayor rejects comparisons to Ferguson | WBEZ
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Hammond mayor rejects comparisons to Ferguson

The breakfast was the same, but the conversation among regulars at Frankie’s Restaurant in Hammond, Ind. yesterday morning was a little livelier than usual.

Many, like Michael Bullock and John Gunn, were buzzing about a video that has gone viral on YouTube and attracted national media attention.

“He just mentioned the video,” the 52-year-old Bullock said as I joined them at their table.

The video, recorded from the back seat by the driver's 14-year-old son, captured a Sept. 24 confrontation between the police and two adults in the car. It’s now the basis of a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court against several officers and the city of Hammond.

After police pulled over the driver, Lisa Mahone, for a minor seatbelt violation officers demanded that passenger Jamal Jones produce identification — something the lawsuit says Jones did not have with him.

After several tense minutes, the video shows an officer smashing the front passenger-side window with a club, showering shards of glass on the vehicle's four occupants, including Mahone's son and daughter in the back seat. An officer then stuns Jones with a taser before dragging him out and arresting him.

The incident happened on 169th Street and Cline Avenue, very close to Frankie’s Restaurant.

From what he’s seen of the video, John Gunn believes the officers overstepped their bounds.

“I don’t see the justification for knocking the window out,” Gunn, 62, said. And they got a kid in the back seat. Now, how does that affect the kids?”

Hammond police spokesman Lt. Richard Hoyda issued an earlier statement saying Jones had refused to comply with orders to get out of the car and that officers were concerned for their safety after seeing him "repeatedly reach towards the rear seats of the vehicle."

Neither Gunn nor Bullock say they’ve had a bad experience with Hammond police. But Bullock says he makes sure to cooperate when he’s pulled over.  

“When they get my license and they see that I’m 6’6” and weigh over 300 pounds that in itself creates an issue,” Bullock said. “I see it in their eyes that it becomes an issue so I’ve personally stepped back from not presenting any drama.”

Still, Bullock says he’s not surprised that a racially-charged police incident occurred in Northwest Indiana.

“This is one of the most segregated areas in the country. You’ve got whites in their area, blacks in their area, Latinos in their area and there’s no really intermingling,” Bullock said.

But Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr. doesn’t see his city the same way Bullock does.  

“Hammond’s a very diverse city. The people that live in Hammond know that it’s a diverse city and they’re comfortable with it,” McDermott told WBEZ on Wednesday afternoon at his City Hall office.

Since the incident came to light, McDermott’s been fending off comparisons by the national media and others to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri two months ago.

“They want this to be another Ferguson but it’s not, and it’s not going to be,” McDermott, who is also an attorney, said.

McDermott says the city’s 211 member police department reflects the 80-thousand residents, where nearly half are white, 30 percent Latino and a quarter black.

“Around 25 percent of our officers are either Hispanic or African-American. It’s important for the police department to reflect the community,” McDermott said.

The Mayor defends the actions of his officers, saying the cell phone video shot by the 14 year old son of Lisa Mahone doesn’t tell the whole story.

“The video that they’ve seen is 3 minutes long, and it’s minutes 11, 12 and 13 of a 13 minute traffic stop,” McDermott said. “A lot of stuff happened that led up to this video.”

Apparently a longer video was recorded from the officers’ squad car, but the city has yet to release it.

McDermott says that video shows officers repeatedly asking Jones to exit the vehicle, but he refuses and fails to show identification.

“999 times out of 1,000, the person is going to show identification. This didn’t happen in this case and things escalated more than I wish it would have,” McDermott said.

But some Hammond residents sympathize with the officers.  

“When a police officer stops you and asks you for something, I just believe that you should comply. Don’t be suspicious, don’t provoke any other actions,” said longtime Hammond resident Nilda Rivera.

Rivera, 46, says she’s always felt safe and has never had issues with police. As for the video that’s captured the nation’s attention, she wants to know why it exists at all.

“That kind of makes you wonder what is this child is being told about the police? Are they being forced to think the worse thing is going to happen and in that respect is that why they were video taping,” Rivera said.

But in the wake of other high-profile racially charged incidents, is it possible the cops may have also assumed the worst about the passengers in the car?

Michael McCafferty is a one-time Chicago police officer who now teaches law and criminal justice at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond. He also is chair of the college’s Public Safety Institute.

“Police are very sensitive to what’s occurring. I think officers are more likely to try to avoid these incidents right now,” McCafferty said. “These videos can go viral. You can go to work in the morning as a patrol officer and then being sued or facing charges or losing your job that afternoon.”

According to the lawsuit, Jones had surrendered his driver's license after being stopped for not paying his insurance and instead tried to show the officers a ticket with his information on it. The lawsuit says the officers rejected the ticket, but police said Jones had refused to hand it over.

The complaint alleges officers shocked Jones a second time after removing him from the car, and accuses them of excessive force, false arrest, assault and battery and other charges. It seeks unspecified damages.

The lawsuit mentions that two of the officers had been sued in the past for excessive force or unlawful arrest. Court records indicate an undisclosed settlement in one of the cases.

As of now, Patrick Vicari and Charles Turner, the two Hammond officers named in the lawsuit remain on active duty.

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews and on WBEZ’s NWI Bureau Facebook page.

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