SOUTH BEND, Indiana—Democratic Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg strode off the campaign trail and directly into the full force of constituent anger on Sunday, when a town hall held to discuss the police shooting death of a black man descended into shouts, heckling and demands for police reform.
The mayor’s appearance on his home turf, which took place just hours after a mass shooting at a pub that killed one and injured at least 10 more, was in response to the police killing Eric Logan, a black man, near central South Bend.
“I just want you to know that we’re not running from this.” Buttigieg said to room. “Of course I’m upset. A man died in this city at the hands of one of the people in charge of protecting the city.
“I’m not commenting on who did what, with or without policy or what was legal or whatever. I can only describe it as a demon that is in so many parts of American life... and to know that part of my job is to be there for that—to listen—to have that poured on me, to have even people I agree with hurl all of their anguish and frustration at me because I represent the city because I represent this problem, of course I’m going to feel that.”
The investigation into the shooting is still in its early stages and prosecutors are looking at any criminality by the police officer.
According to South Bend police, Sergeant Ryan O’Neill was responding to a reported car break-in, and said Logan, whom he discovered with his legs sticking out of a car, wielded a knife and refused orders to put it down, the South Bend Tribune reports, while approaching O’Neill “with the knife raised.” O’Neill reportedly shot twice, striking Logan once in the abdomen. He was transported to the hospital by police cruiser, where he died.
But O’Neill’s body camera was not on, which has led to significant skepticism of the police’s version of events. Police have argued that because O’Neill did not turn on his emergency lights, neither his body camera nor his dashboard camera were automatically activated, the South Bend Tribune reports, and that O’Neill did not later turn on his body camera because he was verifying if Logan owned the car he was discovered in.
“You can sense the pain not only around this incident … and not only around our city but what’s happening everywhere, when it comes to the disempowerment that so many black Americans have felt in relation to the police,” Buttigieg told reporters after the event. “When you lead a city and it’s hurting, you take that on board all the time, but you especially take that on board at a time like this.”
But South Bend has struggled with racial issues in recent years. Critics of a policy that targeted vacant homes for demolition say it burdened black homeowners, who inherited those properties but could not maintain them. South Bend has also been roiled by Buttigieg’s decision to fire the city’s black police chief in early 2012 following allegations that he had taped subordinates using racist language, which soon grew into a wiretapping dispute.
Buttigieg, speaking to reporters on Sunday, addressed racial tensions both in his city and around the country directly.
“This problem has to get solved in my lifetime,” Buttigieg told reporters. “I don’t know of a person or a city that has solved it, but I know that if we do not solve it in my lifetime, it will sink America. And if nothing else, I hope people know that I am motivated, not out of some theoretical concern or some political imperative, but as somebody whose city is hurting.”
“What I hope African Americans watching this see is that our city is facing this. We’re not running away from it. This isn’t theoretical for us, this isn’t something being debated in Washington,” he added. “This is our problem, as it is a problem in so many places. And we are on the front lines of it. And we’re doing everything we know how.”
When Buttigieg and South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski strode on stage, a murmuring crowd grew tense and quiet. It wasn’t until the town hall’s moderator, local NAACP president Michael Patton, asked for applause to “give God some glory” that the crowd obliged.
But during the course of the roughly 90-minute town hall, that tension grew from muttered interjections to full-on shouting. When Buttigieg explained the police department had made strides forward—like improving online transparency and disciplinary standards—one crowd member shouted “it’s not enough!”
It was just the beginning. One man, shouting as stormed down an aisle of the high school auditorium seized the microphone from a fellow speaker. Voices continually interjected in anger, like when Patton, the town hall’s moderator, turned to Buttigieg and Ruszkowski and asked how to bring trust back to the police force.
“Fire the chief!” one person shouted. “Why you askin’ them?” roared another.
The mayor, for his part, said he would welcome scrutiny of the case, including from the Department of Justice or from a special local prosecutor, and accepted responsibility for multiple failures in local law enforcement.
“We have tried, but not succeeded to increase diversity in the police department,” he said. “And while body cameras have been implemented across the police department, there is frustration, which I share, that they were not there when we needed them the most.”
Though police defenders appeared to be few in attendance, there appeared to be a racial divide in the reactions town hall attendees had to leaders’ comments. When the moderator called for calm, for example, many white guests clapped, while many black attendees sat silently.
But regardless of race, the overwhelming majority of attendees were upset about Logan’s death.
“I lived for most of my life in Virginia, and I used to represent as a lawyer the Virginia State Police,” Michael McManus, an attendee who now lives just outside South Bend, said before the event began. “And the state police’s job was to protect the citizens. It seems to me … at least what I’ve seen so far in the newspaper, that’s not what happened.”
How Buttigieg handles the situation has come under the national scope as his presidential campaign has managed to credibly compete with some of the bigger names in Democratic politics. The campaign raised $7 million in April alone, and he’s polling more than a point ahead of Trump in a head-to-head matchup according to multiple political research firms. But he has yet to seize anything close to control of the race, running behind Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden—by significant margins.
Buttigieg also said that, although he has stepped off the campaign trail, he still plans to participate in the first set of Democratic debates later this week.
And despite the rancor at the town hall event, some of Buttigieg’s fans came out to see him, like Sparky Tavis, who lives just outside South Bend. She said she doesn’t blame the mayor for the shooting.
“I won’t think anything differently (afterwards), because I don’t think he’s responsible,” she said before the event. “Sure, he’s the mayor of South Bend, but not being—I think the chief of police, I think there’s other people who are responsible.”