U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 2019 National Action Network National Convention in New York.
U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 2019 National Action Network National Convention in New York this April. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

After a speech surfaced with Pete Buttigieg saying "All Lives Matter" in 2015, racial issues in the South Bend police department, and Buttigieg's role in them, are being scrutinized.

In a 2015 State of the City speech, amid a police department controversy and after calls for impeachment, Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg made an appeal for citizens to respect the police while acknowledging the implicit biases at play in the criminal justice system.

“We need to take both those things seriously,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech reproduced in the South Bend Voice, “for the simple and profound reason that all lives matter.”

The speech, which CNBC unearthed yesterday, was delivered at a local high school three years after Buttigieg demoted the city’s first black police chief, Daryl Boykins, and fired the police office’s communications director, in the wake of a federal investigation into whether they had secretly recorded fellow officers. Boykins sued the city, arguing that he was demoted based on his race. All three police chiefs who have served since have been white.

In a speech in New York City Thursday, Buttigieg addressed his comments, saying he has since learned that the phrase “all lives matter” has been used to push back on the Black Lives Matter movement, and that he has stopped using it in that context. But the reckoning Buttigieg faced over race in 2015 goes deeper than rhetoric, and continues to haunt his local reputation.

Several cases alleging racial discrimination within the local police department under Buttigieg are still moving forward. In South Bend, law enforcement is disproportionately white. The city’s population is 26 percent African American and 14 percent Hispanic, but the police force is only 5 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic. Records show that minorities have left the force by the dozens.

And questions about Buttigieg’s role in the case concerning the police chief’s demotion in 2012 have lingered. In a 2015 story on the lawsuit, the South Bend Tribune reported that the communications director said the tapes contained racist comments about Boykins, as well as discussions of breaking the law. The officers who were taped claim in their own 2012 lawsuit against the city that Boykins told one of them he had not heard the officer making racist statements, but said so to the media because “his feelings were hurt.”

In a settlement, the city claimed it was not aware of any “racist words” on the tapes, and Buttigieg has said he has not listened to the recordings himself.

Buttigieg refused to release the tapes publicly, saying that would violate federal wiretap laws—a decision that angered some local activists, who called for his removal from office. Buttigieg was reelected in 2015 with 80 percent of the vote.

“It’s out there lingering, definitely,” said South Bend Common Council president Tim Scott. “I don’t think even just local activists—they might be the loudest, but just people in general. What we’ve seen from 2012 until now is people wanting transparency in government, especially with the police department.”

Buttigieg’s 2015 speech was meant to address “racial reconciliation” according to a statement to CNBC by Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s spokesperson. “There is no contradiction between respecting the risks that police officers take every day in order to protect this community, and recognizing the need to overcome the biases implicit in a justice system that treats people from different backgrounds differently, even when they are accused of the same offenses,” Buttigieg said at the time.

But the phrase “all lives matter” is considered by many to be a repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed in 2013, in part to advocate against and shed light on police violence in black communities. South Bend’s Black Lives Matter movement chapter did not respond to a request for comment on Buttigieg’s use of the phrase.

More text from Buttigieg’s 2015 speech shows he did not tiptoe around the issue of police brutality. “There is no escaping the fact that the most grievous injustices experienced by minorities in American history were often served at the hands of police officers,” he said. “And every police officer today, even the most forward-thinking among them, even police officers who are themselves African-American, is forced to deal with the fact that even if they had nothing personally to do with those injustices, the uniform did.”

Buttigieg has made commitments to expanding application opportunities for diverse hires, both in the police department and the fire department, a spokesperson for Buttigieg’s campaign said. But the mayor's record on racial issues is implicated by lawsuits and complaints about racial discrimination in the South Bend police department during his tenure.

Davin Hackett is one of a number of police officers who claims that his grievances have been ignored. Hackett, who filed a complaint against two South Bend police chiefs, told CityLab that he is running for a city council seat on the grounds that the discrimination he faced points to broader corruption within the local Democratic Party.

Hackett, now working as a police officer in nearby Elkhart, alleges that in June of 2014, he applied for and was denied an assignment to the South Bend police department’s bomb squad despite his experience as an active-duty ordnance technician in the military. Or rather, because of it: Hackett says his superiors told him that he was denied the position because his obligations as a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves could force him to miss exercises or calls.

According to Hackett’s lawsuit, after he filed a complaint in August of 2015 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then another with the U.S. Department of Labor, the South Bend police department agreed to assign him to the bomb squad. Court documents show that in June of 2015, two officers were asked via email by Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski that one resign their position with the bomb squad to make an opening for Hackett, who had accepted a position with the bomb squad, according to the email.

Hackett says that, while he got the job, his supervisors denied him the opportunity to ever perform his duty. In his complaint, he says that he was subjected to unfair investigations and disciplinary procedures as retaliation. Hackett names two police chiefs, Ronald Teachman and Ruszkowski, as passing him over for promotion in favor of less-qualified white candidates.

A breakdown of the racial composition of the South Bend Police Department in 2016, supplied by the City of South Bend as part of discovery for Hackett’s complaint against the city. (David Hackett v. City of South Bend)

“I’ve never been disciplined in my entire career,” says Hackett, who worked in the South Bend police department from 2006 to 2017 and served with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and U.S. Navy Reserve in addition to the Air Force Reserves. “Not in Detroit [as a police officer], never in South Bend—until I filed a complaint.”

Hackett says he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Air Force just days after Buttigieg returned from his own deployment there with the Navy Reserve. He says he emailed the mayor to explain his plight, but never got a response and has heard no response about his complaint since. A spokesperson for Buttigieg says they have no knowledge of the correspondence.

Still a South Bend resident, Hackett says he plans to run for an at-large seat on the South Bend Common Council as a Republican, due to his misgivings with local Democratic leadership. “[Buttigieg] doesn’t care,” he says.  

Michael Patton, the director of South Bend’s local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said that in advocating for the needs of the city’s black community, Buttigieg has long been a valuable partner.

Under Buttigieg’s leadership, the city established an Office of Community Engagement and Empowerment, which Patton says focuses on equipping historically marginalized areas with home repair funding. They funded the West Side Small Business Resource Center, to catalyze entrepreneurship in the minority community, and also established an Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“He’s a person who gets out in the highways and the byways; he comes out in the neighborhoods and the streets; he establishes ways for the community to speak to him about the state of the city,” said Patton, a reverend who took office at the NAACP in January.

He added that he did not hear Buttigieg’s remarks in 2015, and did not condemn them. “I mean, I’ve said that, ‘all lives matter,’ and I’m black,” said Patton. “I use that term in many different ways—whether it’s all lives matter, moms matter or preachers matter—so I kind of interchange using it. So I guess I’d be in the same boat as Pete.”

“He’s a well-rounded man, as I am,” Patton added. “He’s concerned about all lives in our community.” The phrase doesn’t negate what Black Lives Matters is doing, he said.

Sam Brown, who has lived in South Bend all his life and who now works with the conservative non-profit organization Citizens United for a Better Government, says that he believes the police tapes in question contained racist rhetoric and strongly advocates for their public release. But he also says he understands why Buttigieg demoted Boykins, and has since kept the tapes private. “To keep peace and keep everyone quieted down … he had the right to do it,” Brown said. “He’s the commander-in-chief.”

The mayor is not planning on running for a third term, and by now the controversy over the tapes is a “moot point,” says Patton. “It doesn’t move us forward, and it doesn’t take us backwards at this point whether we engage on that or not,” he said. “It won’t make a hill of beans as to whether—which way that should go at this point.”

Some chapters of the case have indeed been closed: The city chose to settle with Boykins for $75,000 with the stipulation that neither party admitted to any liability, and that “neither is aware of any … evidence that reveals that the Wiretap Plaintiffs used any racist word against Boykins.” The officers that were recorded and that allegedly made the remarks settled for $500,000, according to CNBC.

But another lawsuit between South Bend’s Common Council and the officers to release the tapes is still ongoing. “The Common Council subpoenaed the tapes to understand what was going on within the city and within the police department,” said Scott, who says he’s been involved with the case since 2012. “I’ve been behind the releasing of the tapes however we can get there legally. My thing is there’s got to be transparency within government at all levels. That’s all I can say about that.”

The city has since removed itself from the legal proceedings, a spokesperson for Buttigieg said, and though City Hall remains the keeper of the recordings, Buttigieg will not release them unless directed to by the courts.

Even a settled case matters in a crowded Democratic Party presidential primary, since candidates’ views on race have become central to their messaging. In a speech Thursday, Buttigieg called to end cash bail, the death penalty, and felon disenfranchisement, and said he’d sign a law to authorize a study on reparations, a policy to give adult descendants of slaves monetary compensation for decades of slavery and disenfranchisement.

Some local activists say that his positions and rhetoric are inconsistent with several blind spots on race that have manifested throughout his term as South Bend mayor. “[T]ake a look at what he is saying now, and compare that to his record as mayor,” Nate Levin-Aspenson, a local organizer and non-profit consultant, told CNBC. “See what you find.”

Though Buttigieg has advocated for workers’ rights and highlighted his commitment to creating new jobs and economic opportunity, the black-white wealth gap in South Bend is persistently wide: African Americans make about half as much as white residents of South Bend, according to a 2017 report from Prosperity Now, and have an unemployment rate almost twice as high. Forty percent of African-American households are below the poverty line, a figure that’s almost twice the national average.

Buttigieg touched on the disparity in his 2015 State of the City address. “Like the rest of America, we are still struggling to ensure that the economic recovery reaches everyone in our city,” he said.

Those efforts have had mixed effects. A first-term push by Buttigieg to clear 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days has long been lauded as a means of revitalizing downtrodden downtown neighborhoods, and enhancing public safety. But the project has also been identified by locals as a force for gentrification, and Patton acknowledged that the city was accused of clearing properties without regard for those living in them.

City council member Regina Williams-Preston was first inspired to run for public office because of her frustration with Buttigieg’s home-clearing campaign, the Indy Star reported. She and her husband owned three investment properties in the city, she said, which were eventually bulldozed when they did not pay about $2,000 in fines over repairs.

“Homes were coming down blocks at a time,” she told the Indy Star. “They’ll say they were targeting vacant homes, but they didn’t really understand the community.” She did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Williams-Preston also told the Indy Star that, since she’s joined the council, the mayor has acknowledged the program’s flaws and doubled down on advocating for poor residents of South Bend. Many of the now-vacant lots where homes once sat are slated to hold affordable housing, Patton and Scott both added. Patton himself owns about 30 properties in the city, he said, and is building “affordable units on them—single family housing and duplexes and fourplexes.”

And James Mueller, Buttigieg’s former chief of staff, emphasized that while the ratio of homes repaired to destroyed was initially 40 percent to 60 percent, the city is now in a maintenance period. “We’re looking to flip that ratio, so we preserve more than 60 percent and only have to take down 40 percent,” he told CityLab, in addition to creating pathways to homeownership for the missing middle.

Whether his record on race in South Bend will change Buttigieg’s position as a viable presidential candidate remains to be seen. As for impeachment, that’s off the table, says Scott. “If you look at Indiana law, there’s no recall, you would have to resign,” he said. “And that’s definitely not going to happen.”

But after two terms, Buttigieg’s time as mayor of South Bend is drawing to a close, and almost a dozen candidates are running to replace him—Mueller and Williams-Preston among them.

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