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Merrillville appoints first Black police chief

Achievement is the latest in a city that’s now majority Black decades after whites fled from Gary

Crusader Staff Report

Merrillville, the city that was formed by whites after they fled Gary during the era of Black political power, has sworn in its first Black police chief.

The achievement is the latest in a city where Blacks are now the majority, decades after it was formed by whites who found a way to get around a law that kept them from incorporating near the growing Black city they fled.

Fast forward to June 1, 2020. That’s when Police Chief Wiley Luther Cuttino was sworn in as the first city’s first Black top cop during a private ceremony at Merrillville Town Hall. His first order of business was naming veteran officer Kosta Nuses as his assistant chief, Town Council President Rick Bella said.

Cuttino joined the Merrillville Police Department in 1994, becoming the first Black person to serve on the force. He worked for Methodist Hospitals as a civilian security officer for 16 years before he joined the Police Department.

Cuttino succeeds Police Chief Joseph Petruch, who is retiring June 30.

Cuttino and another Merrillville officer sought the chief’s position. Bella said both of the candidates were qualified to serve in the role.

Cuttino is expected to work with Petruch until Petruch retires at the end of the month. Petruch is leaving the force after more than 40 years in law enforcement.

The swearing-in ceremony was private because Town Hall reportedly remains closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some town officials and police officers reportedly participated in the ceremony.

Merrillville plans to have another ceremony for Cuttino to introduce him to the community during the next council meeting at 6:30 p.m. June 9 at Town Hall.

Merrillville was formed in 1971 during the height of Black political power in Gary. The historic 1967 election of Richard Gordon Hatcher as Gary’s first Black mayor led many white residents to flee south. Most of the retail and bank establishments relocated from downtown Gary and Hammond to Merrillville, as suburban malls and office complexes sprang up in the cornfields.

In 1971 white lawmakers passed legislation that exempted Lake County from a “buffer zone” law that prohibited cities to incorporate within three miles of large cities. The legislation allowed whites to incorporate Merrillville as their new city.

In 2017, at the 50th Anniversary at West Side Leadership Academic marking Hatcher’s historic election, Reverend Jesse Jackson joked that Hatcher should also be recognized as the founder of Merrillville.

Over the years, Merrillville’s Black population has grown as Gary’s predominately Black population continues to decline. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Blacks are now the majority ethnic population, making up 44 percent of the city’s 35,032 residents. Whites make up 37 percent of the population.

Three of the town’s seven-member council are Black. They include Donald Spann (Ward 1), Richard Hardaway (Ward 2) and Leonard White (Ward 7).

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