SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the aftermath of a white police officer fatally shooting a black suspect in South Bend, a mostly African American crowd of family members, pastors and politicians gathered at a street-side vigil to voice anger over the killing, question its circumstances and emphasize their distrust of the police.
One key leader wasn't there to hear their grievances: Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The rising, 37-year-old Democrat had suspended his presidential campaign to return home, but mostly remained out of public view for three days.
When he resurfaced, it was to deliver a speech telling six newly sworn police officers that they carry the "burden" of past racial injustice between police and minorities.
"We've spent years working to build trust between city leaders, public safety officers and members of the community we are charged to serve," Buttigieg told the officers Wednesday. "Today, those same relationships we've worked so hard to build are in jeopardy. It's a reminder to all of us how fragile our work can be."
A few hours later, the mayor appeared at a civil rights center flanked by the local NAACP chapter president and supportive African American leaders, saying the work to help the city heal could begin even as the "process" into investigating what happened plays out.
The two events illustrate the delicate balance Buttigieg is trying to strike in the most marked challenge of his presidential campaign to date as his relationship with South Bend's African American community has come under renewed scrutiny.
On one hand, Buttigieg is attempting to show African American voters, whose support any Democratic presidential hopeful needs, that he understands the importance of constitutional policing and the ramifications of controversial shootings of black residents by officers. On the other, the mayor has to be careful not to draw conclusions about a shooting that's under investigation or alienate law enforcement nationally as well as the local officers he relies on to fight crime.
After Buttigieg learned Sunday that Eric J. Logan, 54, had been shot and killed by an officer responding to a report of a suspect breaking into cars, the mayor canceled a scheduled appearance at the Democratic National Committee's LGBTQ Gala in New York and called off a California fundraising swing.
As word of the candidate's decision popped up on cable TV news tickers, those at the vigil in South Bend clutched white candles and metallic blue and silver balloons as they raised questions about police cameras that failed to record the shooting, Sgt. Ryan O'Neill's decision to use deadly force and previous accusations of racist comments against the officer.
"Mayor Pete should have been here. I'm surprised he wasn't," the Rev. Lonell Hudson of South Bend's Greater New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church said afterward. "This is one that everyone knows he has to get a grip on and do something about, because if he doesn't, his chances at the presidency are slim and none."
James Mueller, Buttigieg's former chief of staff and the Democratic nominee to succeed him as mayor, was among the last to leave the gathering. He described the vigil as a no-win situation for his friend.
"It comes from a genuine place, that he wants to make sure the community is feeling supported by their mayor, but it also is no secret that he's on the presidential trail now and you've got to temper any major deviations, because people will read into that," Mueller said. "He can get criticized either way."
Buttigieg decided not to run the risk of overshadowing a family in mourning, a move that also avoided the possibility of any public interactions with people upset at what happened.
"I took some advice from community leaders on this," he said, "and reached the conclusion that it would be more of a distraction if I were to attend."
Sgt. O'Neill's deadly encounter with Logan, who records show had spent time in prison for felony drug convictions and a gun charge, began with a 911 call early Sunday reporting an individual breaking into cars in an apartment complex parking lot.
Authorities offered the following account: O'Neill approached a vehicle after seeing the legs of a man hanging out from an open driver's side door. Logan emerged with a purse in his clothing, refused orders to drop a knife and raised the weapon as he approached O'Neill. The officer fired two shots as he backed away, one of which struck Logan in the right front abdomen.
O'Neill called for an ambulance but then allowed another officer to transport Logan to the hospital in a squad car, authorities said. Neither O'Neill's body camera nor his police dashboard camera recorded the shooting, authorities said. O'Neill suffered a forearm injury from the knife, which became airborne after Logan was shot, authorities said.
A St. Joseph County probe is ongoing, with a South Bend Police Department internal affairs investigation to follow.
O'Neill, who is on leave pending the outcome, previously has faced accusations of racism, court records show.
South Bend police Chief Scott Ruszkowski testified during a lawsuit in 2017 that O'Neill was promoted to sergeant despite an earlier internal affairs probe spurred by two officers complaining that O'Neill used racial slurs. Ruszkowski also testified that O'Neill passed a polygraph test.
In a separate case in 2008, a man self-filed a lawsuit from prison alleging that O'Neill called him a racial epithet during a domestic violence call. The suit was dismissed for failure to pay court fees.
Some activists and city leaders argued that the O'Neill allegations feed into what they say is a recurring pattern of racist behavior within the department. During a community meeting at a gospel radio station in the days following Sunday's shooting, several faith leaders called for the city to request a Justice Department civil rights investigation.
South Bend Common Council member Oliver Davis said Wednesday he would draft a letter requesting the federal intervention, and Buttigieg said he was open to any form of an independent investigation. Such investigations were far more common during former President Barack Obama's tenure than President Donald Trump's.
The lack of video coupled with officers removing Logan from the scene before paramedics arrived led family members and some activists to allege police have not been forthcoming.
"How do they have no video footage of nothing? No dashcam, no bodycam, no nothing? The reason they don't have it is because they don't want to tell the truth," said Tyree Bonds, 52, one of Logan's brothers. "Since when do the police put somebody in the police car when they shot them? Since when? It's a cover-up."
Authorities say the cameras didn't record because they are triggered by turning on a squad car's emergency lights or by a manual button, neither of which O'Neill used. Buttigieg told reporters he was "extremely frustrated" that the officer's body camera didn't record the shooting.
"The whole purpose of body cameras is that when there is a difficult or tense moment, we can either validate that an officer did the right thing or determine that an officer didn't," Buttigieg said. "It defeats the purpose of that system if it is not activated."
Buttigieg has faced policing controversies throughout his eight years in office. Just three months on the job, he donned a symbolic hooded sweatshirt and marched in a local March 2012 protest against the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, who was visiting relatives when George Zimmerman shot him, claiming self-defense.
The march was the same day that Buttigieg fired South Bend's first African-American police chief.
In his memoir, "Shortest Way Home," Buttigieg wrote that he fired Darryl Boykins because he had lost faith in his leadership ability after he failed to immediately inform the mayor he was under federal investigation for recording officers' phone calls. Only later, Buttigieg wrote, did he learn that officers may have made racist comments.
Council members sued to release the tapes, a matter still tied up in court. Boykins received a $50,000 settlement, while legal fees and other settlements have cost South Bend $2 million.
The so-called tapes case is frequently brought up as a prime example of racial injustice under Buttigieg.
"If your foundation is shaken, everything you do on top of it shakes that much more, and our foundation is concealing those tape recordings," said Davis, the council member who led the lawsuit challenging Buttigieg on the issue.
Buttigieg's policing controversies have been similar to the ones former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to navigate amid the fallout of the Laquan McDonald police shooting scandal.
Both Democratic cities saw protests, calls for civilian oversight of the police department, police union complaints that the mayor hasn't had their back and mayors who pleaded to let the investigative process unfold.
South Bend Officer Aaron Knepper has been involved in several use-of-force controversies, including against African American residents. In 2016, a federal jury found that three officers, including Knepper, had violated a family's rights by handcuffing, punching and using a stun gun on a 17-year-old asleep in his bed after mistakenly believing he was a suspect. Knepper has remained on the force despite widespread calls for him to be fired.
Another frequent criticism under Buttigieg is one that Chicago also is dealing with: a police department that doesn't match the city's racial makeup.
South Bend, best known as the home to the University of Notre Dame, has a population of 100,000 that's 54% white, 26% black and 14% Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data.
The Police Department's 242 sworn officers are 88% white, 5% black and 5% Hispanic, according to city figures. Buttigieg called hiring more black officers "one of our biggest challenges."
South Bend Common Council member Regina Williams-Preston said the predominantly white department is viewed as an "occupying force" in black neighborhoods.
"(Buttigieg) has relationships with people of color, but does he have a relationship with the community? Those are two different things, and I don't know if he understands the difference between the two," Williams-Preston said. "A lot of the people in the community really pushing the administration on these different issues, they're not the ones invited to the table when it's time to quote 'connect with the black community.' "
Michael Patton, the local NAACP president who stood by Buttigieg's side at Wednesday's shooting news conference, said, "It's impossible to get hundreds of people to the table.
"But I think there have been good faith efforts that have been happening to bring other people into the process, where our community has been able to participate," said Patton, senior pastor at South Bend's Kingdom Life Christian Cathedral.
Mueller, the mayor's former chief of staff, said that as a Rhodes scholar, Harvard graduate and former consultant at McKinsey & Company, Buttigieg was heavily involved with the mechanics of government and less attentive to community engagement early in his tenure.
"He had a very heavy focus on data, processes, systems, all that," Mueller said. "But I do think there have been a lot of efforts over the last few years to increase his level of engagement with the community and build those bridges."
Buttigieg acknowledged he's had a learning curve.
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