SOUTH BEND, Indiana—Pete Buttigieg emerged from his black Suburban outside the police department Friday night, and stepped into the middle of the tensest moment of his nearly eight-year career as mayor. Protesters, angered by a police shooting five days earlier, pressed a list of 10 demands into his hands. On the list: Would he support an independent investigation by the Justice Department?
After quickly scanning the document, Buttigieg agreed. But there were nine more issues and the crowd wasn’t appeased.
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“Can you say it to us today in front of all these cameras that black lives matter?”
“Did you just ask me if black lives matter?” the normally unflappable Buttigieg replied, anger in his voice.
“Yes, we want to hear you say it,” another said.
“Of course black lives matter,” Buttigieg said into a microphone.
“You running for president and you expect black people to vote for you?” a black woman asked him.
“I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg said.
“You ain’t gonna get it either,” the woman shot back.
This confrontation in his hometown was not where the 37-year-old mayor had expected to be on Friday night. Buttigieg’s schedule had him in South Carolina at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry. Recently, he had been riding a carpet of congratulatory headlines about his robust fundraising and his surging presidential campaign. He was on a glide path to center stage at next week’s Democratic debates.
But early last Sunday that all changed, when a white police officer in Buttigieg’s South Bend police department who had been accused of excessive force in the past shot and killed a 54-year-old black man. Officials said the victim was rifling through parked cars and armed with a knife; the officer hadn’t activated his body camera video and the camera on his dash hadn’t switched on either so there was no independent record of the fatal encounter. Buttigieg left the campaign trail to deal with fallout from an encounter that almost instantly was swept into the fraught national debate over how police treat minorities in their communities.
Over the course of the week, under the gaze of a horde of national media, Buttigieg struggled to reclaim control of the narrative that he has nurtured during his surprising candidacy—the thoughtful, compassionate technocrat whose smart policies have reinvigorated his once beleaguered Rust Belt city. On Thursday, a black pastor interviewing Buttigieg on a radio show noted pointedly that Buttigieg was “running two campaigns: One is for the presidency of the United States of America; and the other is damage control after a Father’s Day shooting of Mr. Eric Logan.” A day later, Logan’s grieving mother screamed at him during the march: “I’m tired of hearing your lies.”
The shooting has exposed a lingering and bitter conflict between South Bend’s black community and a predominantly white police department—a department that has grown only whiter since Buttigieg became mayor in 2012. As mayor, Buttigieg, who has pledged transparency and professionalism, sometimes seemed to make matters worse. Three months intohis first term, he forced out the city’s first black police chief, who had been accused of illegally recording his officers, some of whom were said to have made racist remarks; since then, there have been a number of controversies with racial overtones—violent confrontations between police and minority residents, and lawsuits by black officers alleging that Buttigieg’s handpicked police chiefs engaged in racially discriminatory behavior.The officers involved in the shooting and its aftermath each have been accused multiple times of using excessive force against black people. On Friday, the lawyer for the victim’s family specifically targeted Buttigieg in an interview,saying the shooting was a byproduct of the Buttigieg administration’s “acceptance” of police misconduct.
The criticism comes at a particularly sensitive time on his campaign. After having been dogged by concerns that he wasn’t a viable candidate with black voters – scoring as low as 2 percent in some polls – he had begun to make some progress.When word came of the shooting, Buttigieg had just finished a trip to South Carolina, where he campaigned on his so-called Douglass plan, a policy proposal aimed at fostering black entrepreneurship and lowering incarceration rates. A Post and Courier-Change Research poll last week showed him surginginto third place behind Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, a gain of 6 percent among black voters there. Buttigieg the presidential candidate has caught fire, in part, due to his knack for connecting local and national issues,but the shooting this week dredged up a kind of history that could tie them together in the most damaging way.
On Wednesday morning, after two days of private meetings with community members, Buttigieg emerged to make his first public remarks since Sunday’s late-night press conference. He went to a local Board of Public Safety swearing-in ceremony to address six new police officers and their parents. “As you know, you are also joining this police department at a very challenging moment here in South Bend,” he told them. “We gather in the wake of a shooting that has left family members grieving the loss of someone they love and leaves an officer and his family dealing with the consequences of a lethal encounter.”
Buttigieg acknowledged that relationships between city leaders and police and community members had frayed. The mayor expressed frustration that the officer hadn’t activated his body camera—part of a $1.5 million technology investment a year ago—when it mattered most. He had also instituted implicit bias training for his police force and created a website where citizens could review documents related to complaints against police. This, he said, “is just one reminder of how much work is yet to be done.”
“How far we will have to go before the day when no community member or officer would hesitate to trust one another’s word—and ultimately, how far we have to go before we live in a society where none of the circumstances leading to Sunday morning’s death could have happened in the first place?”
After his speech, Buttigieg fielded media questions that focused on how he was handling the response: Why hadn’t he attended a vigil for the victim at the scene of the shooting Monday evening? “I took some advice from community leaders on this and reached the decision that it would be more of a distraction if I were to attend.” Buttigieg faced what seemed to be a no-win situation: attend the vigil and be accused of co-opting it for the sake of his presidential campaign or not attend and be criticized for callousness. What about the optics of appearing publicly with police first instead of in the community or with victims? “I’m not really concerned about optics so much as making sure that the community is headed in the right direction.”
On Thursday, Buttigieg took to a local radio station, WUBS, where he was asked a question by black pastor, the Rev. Sylvester Williams Jr., that seemed to strike closer to the heart of Buttigieg’s record on racial issues.
Why, he was asked, were all six of the new officers he had just sworn in white?
Buttigieg responded with an apology—“We need people of color on the police department,” Buttigieg said, “and I have failed to get us a more diverse police department”—but that uniformly white array of new cadets wasn’t an aberration under Buttigieg’s administration.
In 2014, during his first term in office, black officers made up more than 10 percent of the 253-person department. By last year, that figure had dwindled to 5 percent. Contrary to its national image as a white, working class, Catholic town, South Bend is 40 percent non-white, comprised of 26 percent blacks and 14 percent Hispanics. And yet its police force each passing year under Buttigieg has looked a little less like the city itself.
While South Bend’s police department problems began long before Buttigieg arrived in office, a decision he made early in his administration set him back. In March 2012, three months into his term, Buttigieg asked for the resignation of his popular police Chief Darryl Boykins, the city’s first black chief. He had learned that Boykins illegally recorded members of the force whom he believed had used racist language, and that Boykins was under investigation by the FBI for it.
Buttigieg phoned Boykins and asked him to resign. (Buttigieg has said that call was a mistake, and that since then he has conducted all personnel changes in person.) “I sat at the end of the conference table in my office, and contemplated which scenario was more likely to tear the community apart—a well-liked African-American police chief potentially being indicted over compliance with a very technical federal law, or me removing him for allowing things to reach this point?” Buttigieg writes in his memoir,Shortest Way Home. “There was no good option: the community would erupt either way.”
Buttigieg’s prediction was right. The backlash was fierce and the storyline virtually swallowed his first year in office.
“This issue, previously an abstraction for me, was now hitting home,” Buttigieg writes in his memoir. “Ferguson and everything that followed in the Black Lives Matter movement came after the tapes controversy exploded locally, but their urgency grew from the same root: the fact that many of the worst historical injustices visited upon black citizens of our country came at the hands of local law enforcement. Like an original sin, this basic fact burdens every police officer, no matter how good, and every neighborhood of color, no matter how safe, to this day.”
The now-infamous tapes case has earned Buttigieg tough press nationally since he entered the crowded presidential race, but it was only one of a series of race-related policing controversies he has faced in office, all of which contributed to the raw emotions that emerged in the wake of the shooting.
The names of the two officers involved in the shooting Sunday were already familiar to many of the city’s black and Hispanic residents and activists. According to court documents, Ryan O’Neill, the officer who fired the fatal shot, had been named in two lawsuits related to racially motivated misconduct. In 2008—several years before Buttigieg took office—a man namedDerrick Burton claimed that O’Neill called him a “stupid n—–” and “tazed me unconscious.” In another 2008 lawsuit against multiple officers, Michael Alexander accused O’Neill of leveling “multiple blows to my head and my back.” Alexander alleged that the officers had tasered him and that he heard them “laughing about how I was flopping like a fish.” Both cases, which were filed while in custody by the men themselves and without legal help, were dismissed by judges.
In July of 2008, South Bend police Lt. David A. Newton wrote in an internal affairs report, which POLITICO has viewed,that O’Neill should be removed as a field training officer because of otherracist remarks he made. Looking at a black woman, O’Neill allegedly asked a fellow officer, “Do you want to get some of that black meat?” O’Neill told the officer that he had dated black women in high school. But when they later saw a black man walking with a white woman, O’Neill remarked to his fellow officer: “Man, I hate seeing that. It makes me sick.” The incident was investigated by an African-American member of the police department. A spokesperson for the South Bend Police Department told POLITICO that the document was “one person’s testimony on an internal affairs investigation. The assertions presented were determined to be ‘not sustained’ at the conclusion of the investigation.”
Last Sunday’s incident also involved a second officer, Aaron Knepper, who drove the wounded man, Eric Logan, to the hospital in a squad car. He had called for an ambulance, but decided not to wait, according the account he gave officials. (Logan, who was shot once in the abdomen, died later.) Knepperalso had a history. In 2016, he was the subject of public protests that called for his dismissal because of a series of incidents over the years. Police Scott Ruszkowski, Buttigieg’s police chief, pulled Knepper off the streets, citing threats to Knepper. Four months later, Knepper was back on the beat.
In August of 2012, Knepper was one of three officers who tricked a mentally disabled 7-Eleven clerk into eating a spoonful of cinnamon in 60 seconds. The man became violently ill. His family sued. The city offered a settlement before trial of $15,000, but the family declined it, and the jury awarded $8,000.
“Obviously I’m not pleased,” Buttigieg said at the time.
That same year, Knepper and other officers entered a black family’s home in the middle of the night, and punched 17-year-old Deshawn Franklin six times and stunned him with a Taser. The officers had mistaken him for someone else. A federal jury decided that Knepper and his fellow officers violated Franklin’s constitutional rights, but awarded him and his family $18. More public outrage ensued.
Buttigieg deflected calls for Knepper’s firing, placing the onus on his police chief and board of public safety, which by state statute is the only entity that has the authority to hire and fire police officers. “Obviously, a firing-level personnel decision is made by the Board of Public Safety,” he said in 2016. “But just to be clear, I accept responsibility for appointments to the Board of Public Safety and (police) chief.”
In the interest of promoting equity, Buttigieg has appointed three African-Americans to the four-member Board of Public Safety (one seat is vacant). At a board meeting in September 2016, protestors interrupted a panel on which Buttigieg sat with Ruszkowski, the former head of the local police union who became police chief in 2015. “I don’t think this can be resolved by targeting any individual,” Buttigieg said. “It can only be resolved by making sure we have a higher level of trust in the community that’s borne out by consistently positive behavior and consistently fair discipline.”
Today, Buttigieg is on his third police chief. After dismissing Boykins, Buttigieg hired Ron Teachman, a white native of Bedford, Massachusetts. Police officers claimed Teachman had “run amok” while Buttigieg, a Navy reserve officer, was on leave from his mayoral duties to serve a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. A local activist accused Teachman of using racist imagery in a sermon, according a local media report. Davin Hackett, a military veteran with expertise in explosives, filed a lawsuit against Teachman for racial discrimination when he was denied a position on the bomb squad. Later, he claimed in a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that he was passed over for a promotion to sergeant in favor of a less qualified white candidate. In retaliation, Hackett says he was “subjected to unjustified investigations and discipline,” according to local news reports. Two other black officers filed race discrimination suits within the same year.
Asked on Wednesday by reporters what he had learned from tensions erupting over race-related policing issues, Buttigieg nodded to his early lack of deftness handling a complex subject that has ended the careers of other mayors.
“When I first took office almost eight years ago, I may have had a theoretical understanding of what’s at stake in issues of race and racism and policing, but it’s different when you bear responsibility for a police department and for the wellbeing of a community. I’ve learned about how raw these issues are.”
By mid-week, it seemed like Buttigieghad been speaking non-stop since he arrived three days earlier—talking publicly and privately, making sweeping statements about the long tail of racial injustice and issuing specific orders about the use of body cameras. He had met privately with Logan’s family and publicly pledged the city’s support for them and his commitment to a thorough investigation of the shooting.
On the night of the shooting, he talked openly about how his response was shaped by past mistakes. “We’ve had prior cases of use of force incidents and officer involved shootings where I hesitated, frankly, to get in front of cameras because we didn’t know very much, and it was out of our hands.”
Buttigieg spent hours on the phone with local leaders. “We don’t want to have to wait for final word from the different investigations to be taking next steps here to fortify community relationships, to keep channels of communication open, and to determine what we can do going forward that will be positive.”
And he sought advice from people he called “experts from around the country.” One of them was the Rev. Al Sharpton, the long-time New York activist who has been at the center of numerous racial controversies over the decades. Sharpton shared the advice he gave Buttigieg with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to be very honest. You’ve got to be transparent. And this family wants justice.’”
But Sharpton also made it clear that history, especially involving race and policing, is difficult to shake: “I think the fact that he had a problem with the black police chief in the past—this brings all of this back.”
Buttigieg was not without support from some local leaders. “He’s been methodical about addressing what’s happened since Sunday,” Apostle Michael Patton, president of the local NAACP Chapter, told me. And one of his staunchest critics, City Councilor Regina Williams-Preston, who lost her primary bid to replace Buttigieg in May, even applauded his decision to step away from the campaign. “I think that was the right thing to do to come back and help us through this tragedy.”
On Thursday evening, Buttigieg blasted a lengthy email to supporters about his crisis back home. “Eric’s death,” he wrote, “no matter what details emerge about the circumstances and the actions of the officer involved – shines a bright light on a subject that impacts my life, your life, and the lives of Americans from all walks of life. All police work and all of American life takes place in the shadow of racism, which hurts everyone and everything it touches.”
Through it all there was the sense that despite all that Buttigieg had said, he still was not making headway with some of the most aggrieved of his constituents.
“The family has not had the consoling that they would’ve appreciated,” Oliver Davis, another black city councilor who ran unsuccessfully for Buttigieg’s seat in May, told me. He was shocked that neither Buttigieg nor a member of his administration attended the vigil for the victim Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Coffman, the Logan family attorney, told POLITICO he planned to file suit against the city on Monday. “There’s several things that don’t add up in the case,” Coffman told me.
Then on Friday, Buttigieg’s campaign announced that he would not attend as planned Rep. Clyburn’s fish fry—a sign of how much he is struggling to extract himself from the crisis and return his focus to the campaign. Though he returned to South Bend for the march on Friday night, he resumed his campaign schedule Saturday to appear at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention, a Planned Parenthood forum, and then a town hall in North Augusta. He planned to shuttle back to South Bend Saturday night in advance of atown hall of his own he hoped to hold as soon as Sunday. Meanwhile, as the investigators continue their probe of the shooting, the St. Joseph Prosecutor’s Office announced on Thursday that Prosecuting Attorney Kenneth Cotter hasn’t yet decided whether to appoint a special prosecutor in the case. Buttigieg has said he would support an independent investigation by the Department of Justice.
Whatever the outcome, the crisis doesn’t seem likely to be resolved soon.
Back on the basketball court, at the memorial for Eric Logan, in the muggy heat of an Indiana summer, Buttigieg furrowed his brow and placed his thumb and index finger on his chin. He was dressed up in his campaign uniform of white shirt and blue tie with a navy suit jacket. His husband Chasten stood next to him, hands clasped. “We have to learn to listen, as well as to speak,” he told reporters that morning at a press conference outside of South Bend Police Department. And so he was listening.
It was after 6 p.m. by now, the national reporters had left (only temporarily, it turned out). Across the park, black men shoved white styrofoam cups in the gaps of a chain link fence surrounding a baseball field, spelling out Logan’s name.
“We can’t keep getting hurt like this. There’s only so much that we can bear,” said Eli Cantu, the Hispanic activist who organized the memorial, addressing the mayor and other city officials. “This is an opportunity for you, Pete. You can really bridge this gap by addressing this issue correctly. These people need to be held accountable.”
“The officers need to be held accountable,” Cantu told me.
After the last person spoke, Cantu asked people to say something they loved about South Bend.
“The people,” one person said.
“The weather,” said another, causing people to laugh and breaking the tension of the moment.
And then Cantu directed everyone to put their hands in the middle of the circle. “South Bend on three,” he said. Buttigieg and his husband put their hands in the circle.
“South Bend,” they yelled, like it was a team huddle.
As the circle disbanded, and community members milled about, I asked Cantu how Buttigieg was handling the crisis. “I’d give him an ‘E’ for effort,” Cantu told me. “Has it gone somewhere? He’s trying. But is he making the necessary moves? I haven’t seen them yet.”
And Buttigieg kept trying. On Friday night, at the end of the march, he made a promise to the crowd. “I want you to know we’re serious about fixing this.”
There was a smattering of applause.