Is Pete Buttigieg Telling The Truth About Why He Fired His Town’s First Black Police Chief?

Is Pete Buttigieg Telling The Truth About Why He Fired His Town’s First Black Police Chief?

So long as the U.S. attorney’s office remains silent, the public has no way of knowing whether presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or the former police chief’s attorney is speaking the truth.
Margot Cleveland
By

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been under fire since a white police officer shot and killed an African-American man a week ago. But Buttigieg’s estrangement from the local black community dates back to 2012 when the newly elected mayor fired the city’s first African-American police chief.

On Sunday the nation got its first glimpse of the racial divide threatening to destroy Buttigieg’s presidential ambitions when CNN ran clips of the townhall the mayor held in South Bend. Unlike the friendly gatherings of Democratic primary voters that have occupied Buttigieg’s time over the last month, the black community in this mid-sized college town showed only anger at him.

Sunday’s outrage focused on the shooting death of Eric Logan by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill. In a press conference held after the shooting, state Prosecutor Ken Cotter stated that O’Neill confronted Logan in response to a 9-1-1 report about car break-ins. O’Neill told his superiors that he shot Logan after the suspect approached him with a knife drawn and ignored multiple orders to drop the weapon. Logan died after officers rushed him to a nearby hospital in their squad car.

Since then, racial tensions in South Bend have escalated. Buttigieg’s attempt to calm the community during Sunday’s townhall-styled listening session backfired, with the young mayor only further enraging the crowd. The black community’s disdain for Buttigieg pre-dates Logan’s shooting death, however, to Buttigieg’s firing of the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins.

Buttigieg Fired Boykins After Racist Tapes Surfaced

Boykins, who had worked his way up to police chief after starting with the department in 1984 as a patrolman, served in that position from 2007 until March 2012, when Buttigieg replaced him with a white police chief. The surrounding circumstances have long roiled the black community and raised still-unaddressed concerns in the northern Indiana town of a department-wide problem of racism. Known locally as the “police tapes” scandal, Boykins’ firing followed the discovery that department had recorded the telephone calls of several South Bend police officers.

According to the local U.S. attorney’s office, the South Bend Police Department “had a practice over many years of recording certain police phone lines and radio communications, but not all phone lines.” In a letter provided to Boykins’ attorney, the U.S. attorney’s office explained that their investigation into the department’s practice revealed that “the Police Chief would inform the Director of Communications on which lines should be recorded and historically all 911 calls and all police radio traffic were recorded.”

Additionally, “lines usually recorded were police front desk lines, the Chief’s office lines, a line for internal affairs, the main detective bureau line, and most of the division chiefs’ lines.” In approximately 2010, “during a change in leadership at the detective bureau, the Chief of the Detective Bureau’s line was mistakenly not recorded and the line assigned to one of the detectives in the bureau was mistakenly recorded instead,” the letter read. “Once this was learned, the recording on that line continued.”

After police communications director Karen DePaepe heard on the tapes what she described in court filings as “discriminatory racial comments of high ranking officers” in the department, and “something I believe to be possibly illegal,” she told police chief Boykins about the conversations and handed him numerous cassette tapes that had captured the telephone calls.

Others in the police department got wind of the recordings, leading one or more of the officers taped on the line to complain to the local U.S. attorney’s office in January 2012. The local U.S. attorney’s office then “asked the FBI to commence an investigation because the interception of telephone conversation could violate the Wiretap Act,” the letter to Boykins’ attorney explained.

Buttigieg, According to Lawsuit: Resign or Be Fired

Then, at the end of March, according to a race discrimination lawsuit Boykins later filed, Buttigieg’s chief of staff (or the local equivalent), Michael “Schmuhl met with Boykin on Buttigieg’s instruction, and threatened Boykins with both a federal criminal prosecution and employment termination if Boykins did not ‘voluntarily’ resign his post as Chief of Police.”

Boykins further alleged that during this meeting, Schmuhl led him “to believe that, through prior meetings between the Mayor and the United States Attorney, Buttigieg had struck a deal with the U.S. Attorney, whereby the U.S. Attorney would agree not to prosecute Boykins for violations of the federal wiretap act if Boykins would agree to the demotion.”

Boykins resigned, but shortly after attempted to rescind his resignation. Yet Buttigieg refused to allow Boykins to rescind his resignation, instead returning him to the department in a demoted position.

Many in the black community condemned the newly elected mayor for firing the police chief and demanded Buttigieg release the tapes. Buttigieg refused, prompting the city council to file suit to access the recordings. That case is still pending, and the public still does not know the content of the recordings—just the claims that they contain racist conversations.

Buttigieg Blames U.S. Attorney’s Office

As criticism mounted over Buttigieg’s firing of the city’s first black police chief, Buttigieg began to publicly point his finger at the U.S. attorney’s office. In his political memoir “Shortest Way Home,” the mayor detailed his version of the events:

A few weeks into the job of mayor, I learned that my newly reappointed police chief was being investigated by the FBI. Eventually a message came through, thinly veiled but quite clear, from federal prosecutors: the people responsible for the covert recordings needed to go, or charges might be filed. Why did they send me that signal, instead of just acting on their own? Was the intent to do me a favor, giving me a shot at resolving this quietly and helping my young administration without getting bogged down in the scandal of indictments just a few weeks after we got started? Maybe. Or perhaps they just understood the politics of all this before I did. Why should a U.S. attorney shoulder the responsibility of taking down a bellowed African-American police chief, if he can get the mayor to do it for him by removing him from his position? . . . I had lost confidence in the leadership of a chief who had not come to me the moment he realized he was the target of an FBI investigation.

Buttigieg repeated his claim as recently as April of this year, when The New York Times reported that the mayor-turned-presidential-candidate said, “It was made very clear to me by the F.B.I. and the United States attorney that either we would take employment action or there would be indictments.”

Boykins Attorney Claims Buttigieg Is Lying

But while the mayor publicly placed blame at the U.S. attorney’s office, Boykins’ attorney, Tom Dixon, claims that federal prosecutors were privately assuring him that no such conversation had occurred. Dixon told The Federalist that after the mayor first claimed he had demoted the police chief at the request of the U.S. attorney’s office, in exchange for the federal prosecutors dropping the investigation, one assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) reached out to him “assuring me their office would never make a charging decision based on a quid pro quo employment decision by a municipality.”

Then, after the mayor floated the second justification—that he demoted Boykins because the police chief hadn’t informed Buttigieg that the chief was under investigation—Dixon said he then had a second meeting with multiple AUSAs. Dixon claims that, at that meeting, the AUSAs unequivocally stated that their office did not suggest, in any way, that the mayor should remove Boykins or the police chief might be charged with federal wiretap crimes.

“Nor was Boykins a target or subject of a federal investigation, as Buttigieg claimed,” Dixon told The Federalist. Rather, Dixon said that “In the second meeting, the ASUAs confirmed that Boykins was neither a subject nor a target of the investigation.”

It was then, according to Dixon, that the AUSAs gave him “a letter summarizing the results of the FBI’s investigation into the South Bend Police Department’s long-standing policy of taping telephone calls.” The federal prosecutors concluded that police department’s informal policy did not violate federal wiretapping laws, Dixon stated.

U.S. Attorneys Claim Dixon’s Story Wouldn’t Happen

Dixon had previously told The New York Times of his conversation with “an assistant prosecutor in the United States attorney’s office, a lawyer he knew from church, about the mayor’s assertion.” “Tom, that explanation is so contrary to the protocols of U.S. attorneys’ offices,” the Times reported Dixon recalling, “We never would condition a determination on prosecuting or not prosecuting based on an employment decision. It would never happen.”

The Federalist spoke with the three AUSAs Dixon indicated were involved with, or familiar with, this matter and they all refused to comment. They would neither confirm nor deny Buttigieg’s version of events or Dixon’s claims of his conversations with the AUSAs. The Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Indiana likewise refused comment.

Buttigieg’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

This backstory explains the visceral response Buttigieg received when he reached out to the local black community on Sunday. The recent police shooting has elevated the significance of Buttigieg’s firing of Boykins and his explanation for that decision. But so long as the U.S. attorney’s office remains silent, the public faces a he-said, he-said dispute, and has no way of knowing whether Buttigieg or the former police chief’s attorney is speaking the truth.

With racial-tensions rising in this mid-sized community, the U.S. attorney’s office—which is now under new leadership—needs to answer the question: does Buttigieg have an integrity issue, or does the U.S. attorney’s office?

Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.

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