POLITICS

Pete Buttigieg’s Emotional Town Hall Exposes Tensions Between South Bend Police, Community

The 2020 presidential hopeful faced questions about an officer-involved shooting in his Indiana city.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg faced emotional community members at a town hall Sunday while trying to answer questions about a white police officer who fatally shot a black man in the city last week. 

The event, which was moderated by South Bend NAACP President Michael Patton, exposed some of the anger and pain that many of the town’s black residents have felt about police accountability over the years.

“Reorganize your [police] department by Friday of next week. Get the people that are racists off the streets,” one woman said. Another audience member told the mayor, “When you messed up, we gotta call that out.”

Buttigieg, who has been South Bend’s mayor since 2012, attempted to provide consoling words to those grieving the death of Eric Logan. He and police Chief Scott Ruszkowski also tried to explain the review process the city undertakes following a police shooting. 

South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill shot Logan in an apartment complex’s parking lot last weekend while responding to reports of cars being burglarized. Prosecutors allege Logan threatened O’Neill with a knife. Logan’s family has denied those claims, saying he was shot while walking to his mother’s home after a family gathering.

It was later discovered that O’Neill’s body camera was not running during the shooting because he hadn’t turned it on. O’Neill is currently on administrative leave.

One audience member called the incident “Laquan McDonald-ish,” referring to the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in Chicago. The city hid footage of the incident for about a year, which caused nationwide outrage.

“I think one question a lot of people have on their mind is why isn’t the camera just running all the time? There are reasons; they have to do with privacy. Showing up on the scene of a sexual assault is one example,” Buttigieg said at the town hall. “But it’s also the case that we can and should look at this policy and see if the lines have been drawn in the right way.”

Court documents have also revealed that O’Neill allegedly has a history of making racist and discriminatory comments. Many South Bend residents at the town hall shouted at Buttigieg and the police chief for failing to hold racist police officers accountable. 

Buttigieg said neither he nor the police chief could fire an officer. That responsibility falls to the Board of Public Safety, whose members are appointed by the mayor. There are currently four people on the board, including one former police officer.

The mayor told the town hall audience about several issues he wanted to address: use of force, body cameras, police training, police diversity, and the investigation process ― both in general and as it pertains to officer-involved shootings.

When he said he would welcome new ideas that could help, Councilwoman Regina Preston told him the community has repeatedly been ignored when trying to offer their suggestions.

“I’m on the list you invite to the table for conversations. I see the same black people over and over again, year after year. And yet the people who are in the audience when you have these public forums are the same black people [who are] ... not invited to the table,” Preston said. “They’re yelling now because they haven’t had the opportunity to speak to you in a way that gives you that information.”

“I think it’s time for you to rethink who you think the leaders are in this black community,” she told Buttigieg.

The mayor said he has invited many of the community members Preston mentioned but that he has had the invites declined.

Buttigieg said he will send a letter to the Justice Department asking for a civil rights investigation, but stressed that the letter does not guarantee the department will act on the request. He also said he has notified the St. Joseph County prosecutor that he wants an independent investigator to take over the investigation currently being conducted by the South Bend Police’s homicide division.

The town hall took place just hours after a shooting at a South Bend bar left one person dead and at least 10 others injured. Buttigieg briefly mentioned that shooting at the town hall.

Logan’s death was just one example of long-held tensions between people of color in South Bend and the police. 

Buttigieg demoted Darryl Boykins, the city’s first black police chief, in 2012. Boykins had ordered some officers’ phone calls to be recorded because they allegedly made racist comments about him. The mayor said he demoted the police chief because he had not disclosed that the FBI was investigating him for allegations of inappropriately wiretapping subordinates.

Boykins, whose name was brought up by town hall audience members multiple times, sued the city after his demotion and said he had been racially discriminated against. The South Bend Common Council has since worked to make the secretly recorded tapes public, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Addressing the recent shootings in South Bend poses a challenge for the presidential candidate, who has climbed up the ladder to be one of the more serious Democratic contenders.

Protesters gathered Friday, demanding Buttigieg advocate for better police training.

“You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you?” one protester asked the candidate, according to the Tribune. “That’s not going to happen.”

Buttigieg took a break from campaigning to address the police shooting in his hometown but told NBC after the town hall that he still plans on participating in a Democratic primary debate later this week.

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