Police shooting poses Buttigieg’s biggest 2020 challenge yet

(Photo supplied/ABC 57)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Mayor Pete Buttigieg stood before newly sworn police officers to welcome them to the city’s ranks, just as he has more than a dozen times since taking office. But this time he was a Democratic candidate for president, speaking days after a white officer fatally shot a black man the officer said was armed with a knife.

The timing made for a more sober, less congratulatory occasion, Buttigieg acknowledged Wednesday. Then he delivered a speech intended for an audience far beyond South Bend, touching on a long history of racial injustice, “justified anger” among residents and “a seemingly constant series of stories and videos from around the country showing abuses that tarnish the badge.”

“You may think to yourself — how is this my fault? How is this my responsibility?” Buttigieg asked the six officers who sat looking up at him from the front row. “It may not seem fair as you prepare for your first day on the job, but you are burdened with this. We all are.”

Sunday’s shooting of 54-year-old Eric Logan has posed perhaps Buttigieg’s biggest challenge of the presidential election cycle so far, forcing him to navigate the dual roles of mayor and candidate at a critical time for both his campaign and the city of roughly 100,000 people. It also highlights Buttigieg’s struggle to appeal to black voters and threatens to undo some of the progress he has made with the minority community in his hometown.

The 37-year-old, who rose quickly to the top tier of the Democratic field since joining the race in January, had to cancel several fundraisers just as candidates are scrambling to raise as much money as possible before the June 30 quarterly fundraising deadline. He’s also investing significant, unanticipated time in his day job just as he’s set to appear in next week’s debate against several better-known top candidates — including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Since leaving the campaign trail on Sunday, Buttigieg, who is white, said he’s met with Logan’s family as well as leaders of the black community, clergy and police officials. He’s also been consulting with experts on community policing, race relations and civil rights, as well as former mayors with experience with similar cases, his office said.

Buttigieg, as one of the few Democratic presidential candidates with executive experience, suggested Wednesday that it has made him a better candidate and a better leader and will allow him to speak during the campaign about issues he’s dealt with firsthand. That may be particularly true as he stands on the debate stage next week alongside Biden, who has defended his support for a 1994 crime bill many say led to mass incarceration of blacks and other minorities.

“What I will say is that when the topic of criminal justice comes up, this is obviously something that is not theoretical, for any of us, but certainly for anyone who’s responsible for guiding a city,” Buttigieg told reporters after his speech. “And its importance is only heightened, having navigated something like this.”

But the shooting also has renewed the focus on one of Buttigieg’s biggest vulnerabilities. He has struggled to attract early support from black voters, who are key to winning as a Democrat, and has drawn attention to problems of race within South Bend and under his leadership. The two-term mayor was highly criticized for firing the city’s first black police chief early in his career, and while he has implemented several programs to try to improve relations between police and the black community, he admitted this week that any gains they’ve made are now in jeopardy.

The Rev. Wendy Fultz, who is black, described the relationship between police and the black community as “broken, very broken.” The 69-year-old has lived in South Bend her entire life and said, “It’s gotten to the point that we are hopeless.”

“We talk. We try to organize. We do a plan, we have a strategy,” she said. “And yet we feel like in this community, every time a black man calls the police you may as well call the morgue.”

As for the mayor, she said: “I think he’s removed. Everybody in this situation – even the mayor – is removed. They don’t understand.”

Prosecutors say the officer who killed Logan, Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, was responding to a report of a person breaking into cars when he encountered Logan in an apartment building parking lot. O’Neill told authorities that Logan had a knife, and when he refused the officer’s orders to drop it, O’Neill opened fire, shooting Logan in the stomach. Another officer took Logan in a squad car to the hospital, where he later died.

While South Bend officers are equipped with body cameras and dashboard cameras, the shooting was not captured on video. Mike Grzegorek, commander of the county prosecutor’s Metro Homicide Unit, said O’Neill told investigators he spotted Logan leaning inside a car and didn’t press a button to turn on his body camera as he approached to ask if he was a resident of the apartment building. Both the dash and body cameras would have been automatically activated if his squad car’s emergency lights were turned on or if O’Neill had been driving fast, but he was driving slowly without lights because he was looking for a suspect, Grzegorek said.

Buttigieg said Wednesday that he was “extremely frustrated” that O’Neill’s body camera wasn’t turned on. On Tuesday, he asked his police chief to issue an executive order reminding officers of a department policy that says cameras must be on during any interaction with civilians.

“The justified anger over why our system of body-worn cameras did not lead to a clear picture of Sunday’s events is just one reminder of how much work is yet to be done,” Buttigieg told police recruits and their families gathered for Wednesday’s swearing-in. “How much it will take to reinforce trust. 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.”

Buttigieg is scheduled to campaign Friday in Miami and this weekend in South Carolina, though so far only his appearance in South Carolina has been confirmed. He said he has not yet decided when he will start campaigning again, adding that he’s “working to make sure that balance is appropriate.”

“Mayors, like presidents, have to do many things at once,” he said.

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