A 'National Challenge': Pete Buttigieg On Racial Inequity In Policing

Nov 9, 2019
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Nearly five months after the deadly police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Ind., pulled Mayor Pete Buttigieg off the campaign trail, the Democratic presidential hopeful is highlighting his plans to heal fractured relationships between law enforcement and African American communities across the country.

"These relationships are important, I think not only from the perspective of racial justice [but also] from the perspective of public safety itself," Buttigieg said during a discussion in NPR's Off Script series.

Buttigieg spoke with NPR host Scott Simon and two undecided voters in his hometown on Wednesday, acknowledging the criticism he's faced for overseeing a police department that doesn't reflect the racial makeup of the South Bend. African Americans make up about 26% of the city's population, but its police force is about 88% white.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is interviewed at Pegg's Diner in South Bend, Indiana.
Lucy Hewett for NPR

"We've had a real struggle with that during my time as mayor," Buttigieg said. "But not only [in] South Bend. It's really a national challenge."

The focus on that challenge was heightened for Buttigieg back in June, after a white South Bend police sergeant shot and killed Eric Logan, a black resident, during a car break-in investigation.

Buttigieg left the campaign trail to meet with community members in South Bend after the shooting, but drew emotional jeers from residents who expressed feelings that he hadn't done enough to enforce accountability for police officers.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg at Pegg's Diner in South Bend, Ind.
Lucy Hewett for NPR

One voter at the table with Buttigieg on Wednesday, Michael Logan, is a retired Michigan State Police sergeant and is African American (and of no relation to the shooting victim). He pressed Buttigieg on whether he had a broader plan to implement measures to instill more trust between police and marginalized communities.

"One of the things I saw most immediately in my career was the need for law enforcement to actively engage with the under-represented community ... because that has a long-term effect on people's behavior and in cultural change," he said.

Buttigieg said as part of his Douglass Plan to address institutional racism he'd want to form a national police academy that "trains [law enforcement officers] not just in tactics but in these kinds of cultural questions."

Buttigieg also called for a federal partnership with historically black colleges and universities to recruit more people of color to careers in law enforcement and foster more equity in the criminal justice system.

"For the same reason," Buttigieg said, "I think it's so important for people with diverse backgrounds and different ideological backgrounds to seek not only to be public defenders, but to be prosecutors."

Michael Logan said he liked the idea but pressed Buttigieg on how he'd pay for his plan. The mayor suggested corporate tax increases as part of the solution.

"It is going to require asking some to do more — in particular, corporations — that right now, can make billions of dollars and pay literally zero in federal income taxes. And we can't expect to thrive or grow in safety and health," said Buttigieg, "if we're not willing to gather that revenue and put it to good use."

Off Script is edited and produced for broadcast by Ashley Brown and Bridget De Chagas. Eric Marrapodi is Off Script's supervising editor.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Relationships between police and the communities they serve are strained in many parts of the country. Michael Logan, a retired Michigan state police sergeant, says...

MICHAEL LOGAN: One of the things that I saw most immediately in my career early in law enforcement, and especially now, was the need for law enforcement to actively engage with the underrepresented community.

SIMON: Logan's one of the voters who sat down with us this week at Peggs (ph) diner in South Bend, Ind., to talk with Mayor Pete Buttigieg for our Off Script series where we bring presidential candidates and undecided voters together at the same table. Mayor Buttigieg has been criticized by some black residents of South Bend for not doing more about the issue. But he told Michael Logan he has a plan.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Police legitimacy and these relationships are important, I think, not only from the perspective of racial justice but from the perspective of public safety itself. What can we do about it? Well, one thing we know is we can promote programs that encourage that kind of relationship that officers uniquely are able to build in communities of color and on the ground. I always like to say that officers do best when they have the mentality almost of somebody like a candidate for city council - in other words, wanting to walk the neighborhood, build relationships, be viewed as a community problem-solver.

And we can do everything from citizens' police academies - we've got one of those that encourages residents to schedule classes to learn about how law enforcement works - to programs that get officers working with kids in athletic leagues and those kinds of things so that early in life there are those mentoring relationships.

We also, of course, need to make sure that we have more diverse officers on the department, which, frankly, has become harder, I think, since Ferguson. We're finding it harder and harder to find, in particular, young black men who can picture themselves in uniform. And so anything that we can do...

SIMON: This department has been criticized for that under your stewardship, hasn't it?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. We've had a real struggle with that...

SIMON: Yeah.

BUTTIGIEG: ...During my time as mayor, and it's happening in South Bend, but not only South Bend. It's really a national challenge.

SIMON: Former Sergeant, how does that strike you? Is this the kind of stuff you've heard from public officials before? Is there a nugget of something else there?

LOGAN: You know, Mr. Mayor, I think that's a great idea. But I honestly am curious as how that's sustainable because you've seen programs over the year, whether it's DARE, Keep Kids Off, you know, Say No To Drugs - all of those are very short-term solutions, and they're slogan-based. But in terms of the communities of color, there has to be a true cultural shift. I think that there's a way to do that, but it has to be continuous, and it has to be sustained. And you won't see the results of that for six or seven years. How do you address that?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think it's worth investing federal dollars in this, even if it's expensive. So that gets to who pays for it. But I also really agree that we're talking about deep, interwoven cultural issues here. And sometimes, these issues are laid at the feet of law enforcement. Really, it's about a lot of different things. It's about everything from economic empowerment to education. A lot of times, it's also about whether we are responding to mental health and disability issues in the right way. We've seen a lot of racial disparity in that. So I don't want all of this to be kind of pinned on the law enforcement side of the house. But it is clear that there's a lot more we can do.

And I also think this is why it would be a good idea to have a national police academy in the same way that we have a West Point for the Army or Annapolis for the Navy that really builds out what the future of policing is going to look like and trains people not just in the sort of tactics but in these kind of cultural questions.

SIMON: How does that strike you?

LOGAN: I think that's a great idea. But, again, the question is always going to be - and I know you can't answer this right now, Mr. Mayor - how it's funded because, honestly, most people, unless they're directly affected by what's going on - sort of the mentality of, well, what happens on the south side of South Bend - it doesn't affect me, so why should I really care?

SIMON: And, you know, Mr. Mayor, people don't say, oh, yeah, please let me pay more taxes.

BUTTIGIEG: (Laughter).

SIMON: I would love - I would welcome the opportunity to pay for a national police academy.

BUTTIGIEG: (Laughter) Yeah. But here's the thing. We need to do some of this work. And as a country, I think over my lifetime, we have seen the consequences of disinvesting, taking money out of education, out of infrastructure, out of health and mostly using it not to spend on other priorities with the exception of war, some of which could've been avoided. But a lot of it was spent just to cut taxes. And it was to cut taxes on the wealthiest, who needed it the least.

Things cost money. You can't get something for nothing. But there's a way to do this without going back to the tax levels we saw in the '60s in the U.S. But it is going to require asking some to do more. And we can't expect to thrive or to grow in safety, in health, in education, in any of the things that make America successful and competitive if we're not willing to gather that revenue and put it to good use.

SIMON: Pete Buttigieg in conversation with retired police detective Sergeant Michael Logan. And you can watch our whole conversation at npr.org/offscript. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.