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Pete Buttigieg gets put in the hot seat for his handling of South Bend shooting in the debate

“You should fire the chief,” Rep. Eric Swalwell challenged Buttigieg on stage.

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Mayor Pete Buttigieg was put in the hot seat during the second Democratic presidential debate Thursday when, in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting in South Bend, Indiana, he was asked: Why is the city’s police force so white?

“The police force is 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black,” moderator Chuck Todd asked. “Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?”

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said. He continued to say that he was “determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the same thing. Not of fear, but of safety. I am going to bring about that very thing.”

A South Bend police officer shot and killed 54-year-old black resident Eric Logan on June 16, responding to reports that a man was breaking into cars with a knife. The police officer’s body camera was turned off at the time.

Since then, Buttigieg has faced protesters at home as black residents openly questioned whether he cares more about winning the votes of black voters nationwide than he does about fixing the injustices in his city’s public offices. The city is investigating the shooting.

On Thursday night, it wasn’t just the debate moderators who had questions for Buttigieg’s handling of racial tensions in his hometown. Several of his competitors on the stage took shots at him as well. At one point, California Rep. Eric Swalwell asked Buttigieg repeatedly why he didn’t fire the current police chief after Logan’s death — a comment that visibly angered Buttigieg.

Here’s the exchange:

HICKENLOOPER: If I can ask one more question: The question they are asking in South Bend and across the country is why has it taken so long? We had a shooting when I became mayor 10 years before Ferguson. We diversified the police force and ... we did deescalation training. I think the real question that America should be asking is why, five years after Ferguson, every city doesn’t have this level of accountability.

BUTTIGIEG: I have to respond to that. We have taken so many steps toward police accountability that the FOP denounced me for too much accountability, and I accept responsibility for that because I’m in charge.

SWALWELL: If the camera wasn’t on and that was the policy, you should fire the chief.

BUTTIGIEG: So under Indiana law, this will be investigated, and there will be accountability for the officer involved.

SWALWELL: But you are the mayor. You should fire the chief — if that’s the policy and someone died.

Buttigieg’s handling of outreach to his black constituents has been questioned in South Bend before.

In 2012, two months after taking office, Buttigieg fired black Police Chief Darryl Boykins for allegedly taping his white senior officers’ phone calls in an attempt to catch them using racist language, the New York Times reported. Critics argued that Buttigieg, who is white, took the side of white officers who accused Boykins of wrongdoing. He’s replaced Boykins with two white police chiefs. At the time, some in the community called for Buttigieg to be impeached over his handling of the matter, South Bend’s WNDU reported.

That said, Buttigieg ran for reelection in 2015 and won with an overwhelming majority — beating the Republican candidate with 80 percent of the vote.

Buttigieg’s campaign has been vocal about its attempted outreach with minorities, and its need to better connect with communities of color, with the mayor calling it “one of the most important pieces of homework for our campaign.”

The need to do that homework seems to remain; recent polling shows him garnering only 2 percent of black voters’ support. And the recent shooting has only amplified what has been a constant shadow over the mayor’s presidential campaign: his at times strained relationships with communities of color.