Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric rise as a presidential candidate is putting a spotlight on his years as mayor of South Bend, Ind., including his demotion of an African-American police chief.
An Indiana judge will rule soon on whether to release five cassette tapes of secretly recorded conversations between South Bend police officers that led to the 2012 demotion of Police Chief Darryl Boykins, the city’s first ever black police chief.
The South Bend City Council subpoenaed Buttigieg to win release of the tapes, which were at the center of a police department shake-up and a series of lawsuits.
Buttigieg’s critics say he’s gone to great lengths to conceal the contents of the tapes, which some believe could include racist language by white police officers.
There is roiling anger in South Bend over the allegations of racism. Black leaders in the city say that if there is evidence of racism, it could call into question scores of convictions that stemmed from white police officers investigating black suspects in a city that is 25 percent black.
Members of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition met with Buttigieg in 2014 and urged him to ask for a federal investigation into allegations of police misconduct.
“There’s a level of frustration,” said Karen White, a city councilwoman and Democrat who is black. “We want this issue to be brought to closure to ensure this issue does not polarize our community further. We have a right to know [what’s on the tapes], as do our citizens.”
Buttigieg’s defenders say he’s not trying to conceal the tapes, but rather is seeking to ensure that releasing the recordings does not run afoul of federal or state wiretapping laws. No one in the mayor’s office has listened to the recordings, sources say.
The mayor’s allies say he was put in a tough spot, eager to discover whether the allegations of racism are true but not wanting to expose the city to further legal action if a judge ruled the tapes violated federal and state recording laws.
“The mayor’s stance from day one has been that he won’t do anything unless it’s cleared by a court of law,” said a Buttigieg ally. “These are serious matters. Serious allegations. His oath and his job every day is to follow the law, so that’s what he’s doing. Whatever the court decides, whether the tapes are to be released or destroyed, he’ll do that.”
The matter currently sits with St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Steve Hostetler, who could rule on a summary judgement within weeks, although further appeals are expected.
The issue has potential ramifications in the Democratic primary. Buttigieg, 37, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and military veteran, officially launched his presidential campaign from a former Studebaker factory in South Bend on Sunday, saying his policies had revitalized the once-dying Midwest town.
African-American voters will be a force in the primary, where 18 Democrats and counting are battling to be heard. If the judge rules that the tapes should be released, their contents will immediately become a national story.
The Hill dug through court documents and interviewed more than a dozen people to look at the roots of the story, which began in early 2011, before Buttigieg had been elected mayor. The mayor's office and South Bend Police Department declined to comment.
In 2011, Karen DePaepe, a 25-year veteran of the South Bend Police Department in charge of the dispatch and communications center, informed Boykins that the desk phone line for Detective Bryan Young was being taped.
A previous police chief had authorized taping the phone line because the detective at the time didn’t want to miss any possible tips. Boykins allowed the taping, now on Young’s phone line, to continue but did not inform the detective that his calls were being recorded.
About a year later, shortly after Buttigieg had been elected to his first term in office at the age of 29, DePaepe discovered recordings on the line that she said revealed racist remarks and a potential criminal conspiracy between officers.
DePaepe took the allegations to Boykins, who confronted the officers.
The officers, upset over the secret recordings, went to the FBI and Department of Justice to ask for an investigation. They contended the recordings were illegal, and their complaints prompted U.S. Attorney David Capp to open an investigation.
Buttigieg steps in
Buttigieg only learned of the investigation into the recordings in early 2012 when the FBI alerted him to the probe.
Buttigieg’s allies say he was frustrated that Boykins did not tell him about the existence of the investigation. The mayor was alarmed by allegations the officers had been improperly recorded.
Though he had initially asked Boykins to remain on as police chief after his mayoral win, Buttigieg, upon learning of the investigation, asked him to resign.
Boykins complied, but a day later, after consulting with legal counsel and hearing from supporters in the community, he reversed course and asked to be reinstated.
In an interview with The Hill, Boykins’s attorney, Tom Dixon, accused the mayor’s office of misleading his client and trying to scare him into leaving. In a court filing, Boykins said he had stepped down under “the false pretense that the Mayor was being directed into this course of action by the U.S. Attorney’s office.”
Buttigieg relented to a degree, removing Boykins as police chief but keeping him on the force with a demotion to captain.
The mayor also fired DePaepe, believing she had intentionally eavesdropped on the officers to dig up dirt on them. DePaepe disputed that characterization, saying in a court filing that she had “inadvertently stumbled upon conversations” between officers.
The firing and demotion led to a string of lawsuits.
Boykins sued the city for racial discrimination, arguing that the taping policy existed under previous police chiefs, who were white.
In a court filing, Boykins argued that Buttigieg had used the taping scandal as an excuse to get rid of him. Boykins said that since Buttigieg had been elected, the top three ranking African-American officials in the city had retired, been forced out or demoted. The men who replaced them, Boykins said, were white.
“The Mayor seized the ‘tape scandal’ to make a clean sweep of the heretofore African American leadership in South Bend,” Boykins’s tort claim says.
DePaepe sued for wrongful termination, claiming the recordings under wraps contained “racially derogatory statements relating to other ranking officers” and a plot to convince the new mayor to oust Boykins.
A third lawsuit was filed by a group of four police officers and one officer’s wife, who said they had been illegally recorded and defamed.
The city settled with everyone. Boykins received $75,000, DePaepe got $235,000 and the group of officers received $500,000.
At the time, Buttigieg justified the settlements by saying that going to court would have been more expensive for the city’s taxpayers.
“Even though I’m confident our administration did the right thing, there is still a big cost, financially and in terms of energy and attention, to defending and winning these claims in court,” he said. “Each passing day these cases were lingering was bad for the city, and a chance to reach an agreement and resolve them was in the best interest of the city.”
The U.S. attorney closed the book on the case, saying there was no evidence a crime had been committed in recording the officers.
Suing for the tapes
The City Council and local activists were alarmed by the allegations of racism and corruption within the police department.
Former City Council member Henry Davis Jr., a Democrat, asked for a federal investigation in a 2012 letter to Tom Perez, who at the time was the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department.
“There is a high level of discontent brewing,” Davis wrote. “This letter is a plea to the Justice Department for immediate intervention for the protection and safety of our residents and police officers in South Bend.”
The police officers are suing Davis for defamation. Dan Pfeiffer, an attorney for the police officers, told The Hill there is nothing criminal on the recordings. Pfeiffer accused Boykins of using the tapes as blackmail to threaten his political rivals, some of whom were angling for the police chief job in the new administration.
The City Council issued a subpoena for the tapes. An attorney for the council members argued that there is no expectation of privacy inside a police station and that officers are told as part of their training that they should expect their phone lines are being recorded.
The mayor challenged the subpoena in federal court, arguing that a judge should decide whether it’s legal for anyone to listen to the recordings.
The fight over the tapes has been winding through the courts ever since.
The controversy has hung over Buttigieg’s two terms in office, but his approval rating in South Bend is sky-high. South Bend is about 55 percent Democratic. Buttigieg won reelection to a second term with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Buttigieg’s backers say he’s made strides in repairing the racial divide.
“This happened very early on in his administration and the mayor has since spent a lot of quantity time with communities of color to build trust,” said the Buttigieg ally. “It was really hard, especially happening so early on in his time in office. But he’s been able to build deeper relationships because of it.”
But some think Buttigieg mishandled the situation, particularly with Boykins, who is well-regarded within the community.
“I personally felt it could have been handled differently with Chief Boykins,” said White, who is excited to see Buttigieg get into the presidential race but isn’t endorsing a candidate at this point. “There was a perception within the community that Boykins … was painted to be someone that was not in line with his character.”