DES MOINES — During Pete Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor of South Bend, nearly half the city’s black police officers left the force. He admitted Monday that was a failure of his administration.
“This is an area where I’ve admitted we’re not where we want to be,” Buttigieg said at the 2020 Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum in Des Moines.
But in a tense exchange with the VICE News moderator, Buttigieg defended his overall record as mayor and argued that reports that he’d ignored the city’s black police officers were taken out of context — including an investigation by The Root and The Young Turks that found a pattern of Buttigieg ignoring black officers’ concerns.
“Sometimes when an individual officer, often as a consequence of being disciplined, was appealing to the mayor’s office to try and go around the process, we asked them to respect the process,” Buttigieg said when asked why he hadn’t met with black police officers that had sent his office a letter asking to discuss problems with systemic racism.
Buttigieg said he spoke with black officers “all the time.”
But he was pushed further and asked why he didn’t respond in June of 2014 when 10 black officers reached out to his office. They received no response at all.
Buttigieg said he couldn’t discuss the “case by case” specifics because some had to do with officers who were facing investigations. His campaign noted the lead officer on that letter was at the time facing suspension for striking a handcuffed inmate.
The campaign also noted there was an increase in overall officer complaints during this period because of an increase in officer discipline to try to rein in police misbehavior. Buttigieg said he’d made sure the board that oversaw those disciplinary decisions was majority African-American. And he said that he’d demoted the city’s black police chief for good reason.
“I get a lot of questions about why I removed a black police chief. Almost never do I get asked why I appointed a black police chief in the first place,” he said. “When federal investigators came to South Bend and were investigating practices in the department and I did not find out from him, that changed our relationship.”
Buttigieg said that use-of-force incidents in the city dropped by 18% from his first year as mayor until his last year, and highlighted efforts to recruit black officers, including direct advertising.
Buttigieg has been dogged for months by questions about how he treated South Bend’s African-American community while he was mayor. Black Lives Matter activists have protested him on the campaign trail, and he routinely registers almost no support from black and brown voters in polls in spite of his rise to the first tier in Iowa and New Hampshire, and national polling.
His management of South Bend’s police department has drawn particularly sharp criticism. He demoted the city’s black police chief and replaced him with a white officer in response to a tangled federal investigation of how some officers’ phone conversations had been taped. (Some had made reportedly racist comments on those phone records, further complicating the issue.)
That firing drew sharp rebukes from civil rights activists. And Buttigieg’s first really tough stretch of the campaign came after a white police officer killed a black man in South Bend late last spring, which lead to furious protests back at home and forcing him to leave the campaign trail. The problem appears to go deeper.
Buttigieg has made a concerted effort to improve his standing with non-white voters, including a wide-ranging Douglass Plan aimed at empowering the black community. But so far, it hasn’t helped him make inroads with black and brown voters.
Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to VICE News at the 2020 Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum on Monday, January 20, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Justin Hayworth/VICE News)