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Buttigieg seeks a relaunch after his candidacy gets mired in fallout from police shooting

South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg shares a moment with Shirley Newbill, Eric Logan’s mother, on June 19 during a gun violence memorial in South Bend, Ind.
South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg shares a moment with Shirley Newbill, Eric Logan’s mother, on June 19 during a gun violence memorial in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune/AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — More than a week after a police officer fatally shot her son in a dark parking lot, and days after she was photographed being embraced by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Shirley Newbill had grown weary of hearing what Buttigieg had to say.

“It’s all talk. He’s not doing nothing for me,” Newbill said in an interview Monday. “Everything I say is going in one ear and out the other. He still hasn’t fired the guy who killed my son. . . . I don’t really care about what he has to say anymore.”

It was one of many grievances lodged against Buttigieg in the past two weeks. His return to the city he runs turned into the toughest stretch of his presidential run, as he struggled to contain the fallout from the shooting of a black resident, Eric Logan, by Police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, who is white.

More than 1,300 miles away on Thursday night, onstage for the Democratic debate in Miami, Buttigieg admitted he hadn’t succeeded in increasing black representation on the South Bend police force.

Audience members asked South Bend, Ind., Mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on June 23 about a fatal police shooting. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said, when asked by a moderator why that hadn’t happened. “My community is in anguish . . . and I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. We are hurting.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who formerly served as mayor of Denver, interjected, “I think the question they are asking in South Bend, and I think across the country, is, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ ” After a shooting in Denver, Hickenlooper said, “we diversified the police force in two years.” Buttigieg responded that he’d taken numerous steps to reform the police department, so many that its union “just denounced me for too much accountability.”

The debate in a sense marked a relaunch of Buttigieg’s campaign, as he attempts to integrate the messy business of urban governance with his previously charmed presidential run. He has largely campaigned on his running of South Bend, but his return home suggests the attributes that propelled his rapid rise — lofty rhetoric, intellectual deftness, technocratic zeal — only go so far when it comes to the challenge of healing a community in turmoil.

From discussions about policing to debates on civil rights, the Democratic presidential candidates addressed issues of race on June 26 and 27. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Interviews with more than a dozen community leaders, activists and family members shed new light on how Buttigieg handled the crisis. Each step was a Rorschach test, with supporters seeing a leader earnestly trying to unite the city, and detractors seeing an insular and disengaged figure. 

It was in the early hours of June 16 that O’Neill responded to reports of a man allegedly breaking into cars at a downtown apartment complex. O’Neill said Logan, 54, approached him with a knife and refused to drop it, an account Logan’s family has questioned. O’Neill shot Logan, who was taken to a hospital in another officer’s patrol car and pronounced dead.

In previous crises, Buttigieg, 37, was criticized for a lack of transparency, so this time he immediately held a news conference. “In the past, Pete’s taken a bit of heat and criticism because he allows his department heads and police chief to handle these situations, and he hasn’t been out in front,” said Tim Scott, president of South Bend’s Common Council and a Buttigieg ally.

But he didn’t have a lot to say. “We don’t know much,” Buttigieg acknowledged at the news conference, saying he nonetheless wanted to show he cared. 

The mayor met briefly with Logan’s family that day, according to his campaign, then on June 17 invited two dozen community leaders to the Civil Rights Heritage Center, a small brick building on the city’s west side. Everyone felt “a shock, a disbelief, a concern,” recalled Michael Patton, president of the South Bend NAACP.

Buttigieg then stayed out of the public eye for most of the next two days, instead meeting privately with a parade of community leaders, activists and elected officials. He was to pay a price for that public absence. 

During that time, he spoke among others with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the national civil rights leader, about why the body camera worn by O’Neill did not capture the encounter with Logan.

“My main point of contention was why the camera wasn’t on,” said Sharpton, who has been in touch with Logan’s family. “What’s the point of having cameras if the officers don’t have them turned on in the crucial moment?”

That question seemed to also frustrate Buttigieg, who has spoken often on the campaign trail about his efforts to improve relations between police and citizens. When the city deployed body cameras in 2018, Buttigieg touted it as an important step to “improve mutual trust and accountability between officers and the public.”

On June 18, Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, at Buttigieg’s urging, reissued an order to the South Bend police, saying, “Officers should activate their body cameras during all work-related interactions with civilians.” Still, a major initiative hailed by the mayor had failed to work when it mattered most.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg’s lack of public appearances was feeding a perception among critics that he was hiding out, or worse, hiding facts. Logan’s family expressed outrage when the mayor stayed away from a vigil for Logan, a decision he later said was made on the advice of community leaders who feared his presence would be distracting.

Some African Americans also complained Buttigieg was meeting only with black leaders who were his allies. “Pete seems to reach out to the same group of African Americans who have always been his people,” said Regina Williams-Preston, a councilwoman who has been a vocal critic of Buttigieg. 

She missed a call from the mayor’s aides soon after the shooting, she said, and didn’t hear from Buttigieg for more than a week despite calling and texting for more than a week. Williams-Preston, one of the city’s highest-ranking black elected officials who represents the part of the city where Logan was killed, said she finally has a meeting set up for when Buttigieg returns to South Bend.

“If you want to connect with the African American community, you have to see that we aren’t a monolith,” Williams-Preston said. “You can’t just talk to the same few people every time.” Buttigieg’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After two days of closed-door meetings, Buttigieg emerged for an interview with WNDU 16, South Bend’s NBC affiliate, on June 19, then spoke at a swearing-in for six new South Bend police officers. Under increasing pressure to appear more in public, Buttigieg held another news conference that afternoon.

One of Logan’s cousins, serving as a family spokesperson, took that opportunity to ask why Buttigieg had not recently met with the family; Buttigieg said he had contacted Logan’s daughter, who told him she was not interested in a meeting. 

The mayor then made an unannounced appearance at an anti-violence vigil — a pleasant surprise to the organizers, who hadn’t invited him.

“He received a lot of heavy criticism, but it started the healing process,” said Eli Cantu, a local activist who helped arrange the vigil. He praised the mayor for sticking around after the gathering to hear residents’ concerns, saying, “A lot of people voiced their complaints and their pain.”

That appearance also resulted in photos of Buttigieg holding hands with Logan’s mother, helping soften some of the criticism.

But not all of it. When Buttigieg joined a “police accountability” march a few days later, he was shouted down by angry protesters. 

Some mocked Buttigieg's presidential aspirations, and at one point, a group demanded Buttigieg say, "Black lives matter," prompting a response tinged with uncharacteristic indignation. "Did you just ask me if black lives matter?" he demanded. "Of course black lives matter."

Others wanted Buttigieg to fire O’Neill, the officer who killed Logan. Buttigieg has said his hands are tied because he does not have the authority to fire individual police officers. Rather, those decisions are made by a five-person Board of Public Safety, whose members are appointed by Buttigieg.

Still, there were moments that seemed to briefly appease the protesters, as when Buttigieg said he would support inviting the Justice Department to investigate the shooting.

He followed that up with a town hall meeting, where again he was shouted at by community members. Jorden Giger, part of a group called the “BlackTavists,” led the most vocal protesters, and a woman standing by him demanded Buttigieg immediately reorganize the police department.

“Get the racists off the streets!” she yelled. “It’s disrespectful that I wake up every day scared!” 

Buttigieg, who has spoken frequently about efforts to recruit more minority police officers, admitted — as he did later at the debate — he had not succeeded. “I accept responsibility for that,” Buttigieg said. Speaking to reporters afterward, at one point he appeared to choke back tears.

Cantu was one of three community activists who huddled with Buttigieg before the town hall. “When this first began, we felt like he was being negligent,” Cantu said. “I see him trying now, and that’s something.” 

Still, he gave Buttigieg’s overall performance a C-plus.

Meanwhile, at a Common Council meeting Monday night, Tyree Bonds, Logan's brother, implored residents not to use Logan’s death for their personal agendas.

“Our family wants justice. We don’t want arguing, we don’t want y’all yelling at the board . . . none of that,” Bonds said. “We know for a fact that this is going to take a process. If we have a family willing to accept that, y’all got to accept that, too.”

Referring to the town hall meeting, he added, “All the yelling, whooping and hollering yesterday, that was just ridiculous.”

On Monday, Buttigieg left South Bend to fly to Miami for the debate. But that didn’t stop the attacks.

The city’s police union took the opposite position from the black activists, writing a blistering letter to complain, among other things, about Buttigieg’s comment that “all police work, and all of American life, takes place in the shadow of racism.” The letter said, “Mayor Buttigieg has in no way unified the community.”

Buttigieg’s campaign pointed out that the letter also noted that “the accountability level of officers has increased exponentially in the last several years.”

At Thursday’s debate, Buttigieg touched briefly on some of those efforts, “from bias training to de-escalation,” but he acknowledged that none of that had saved Logan’s life.

“When I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back,” he said.