“The tragedy has touched off a painful discussion in our community about race, policing, and violence,” Buttigieg wrote in his letter. “Many South Bend residents, concerned about racial issues and their impact on our department, believe that the Department of Justice could be of assistance.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
It is not uncommon for local officials to request Justice Department civil rights investigations after incidents that strain relations between police and residents — as independent, federal inquiries often allay concerns of those who feel the police department or local prosecutor are not equipped to handle the cases themselves.
Sometimes, local officials request an investigation of a particular incident; other times, they seek a broader review of the patterns and practices of their police department. Such was the case, for example, in 2015 in Baltimore after riots erupted in the wake of a black man’s death in police custody.
Buttigieg’s request notably stops short of asking for any investigation, instead asking the department to tell him what resources it might be able to provide. Even if the mayor had asked for a broad review of his police department, it is unlikely the Justice Department would have obliged. While the Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration was aggressive about pushing police restructuring, President Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was much less amenable to getting federal law enforcement involved in such cases. Attorney General William P. Barr has maintained Sessions’s view.
Buttigieg acknowledged this Tuesday when reporters asked him about involving the Justice Department.
“The reality is the DOJ in this administration has shown considerably less interest in civil rights than it did in the last administration,” Buttigieg said. “Still, I want to open a discussion about different ways in which federal support could make a difference.”
Buttigieg has striven to show the South Bend black community and African American voters that he is listening to their concerns.
Speaking to an audience of black business leaders in Chicago on Tuesday, Buttigieg promised that if elected president he would prioritize tackling the nation’s persistent systematic racism. “We have pain now that reminds us that our community lives around a chasm,” Buttigieg said, referring to the police shooting. “Black residents and white residents experience every facet of life differently.”
Buttigieg told the crowd he accepted responsibility for not doing enough to diversify the police force and cultivate a community where black residents do not fear the police. But he said the problem is not just his town’s alone and that racial injustice does not just occur within law enforcement, but infiltrates every aspect of life from education to housing to health care.
“This is deeper than politics. This is not just a political problem. It is not just a police problem. It is not just my problem and my city’s problem. And it is certainly not just a black problem,” Buttigieg said. “This is an American problem, and it requires nationwide American solutions.”
He made his remarks at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s annual convention, an organization founded by civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Buttigieg met privately with Jackson ahead of his address, and the two men spoke to reporters after their chat. Asked to access Buttigieg’s handling of the police shooting in South Bend, Jackson commended the mayor.
“He’s handled an awful situation well by being transparent,” Jackson said.