At Town Hall, Pete Buttigieg Confronts Tensions Around Police Shooting

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Mayor Pete Buttigieg faced a tense crowd at a town-hall event in South Bend on Sunday, fielding questions about a shooting by a city police officer last week as the audience booed, applauded and shouted over him.

Mr. Buttigieg, seated on a stage next to the police chief, responded calmly to questions, but on at least two occasions asked audience members to quiet down. “I would like to be able to finish my reply if that’s O.K.,” Mr. Buttigieg said at one point.

Mr. Buttigieg, who in recent months has ascended from obscure Indiana mayor to top-tier Democratic presidential contender, has framed much of his candidacy around the progress of South Bend during his two terms in City Hall, holding up the rebuilt downtown, the improved economy and the demolition of rotting homes as evidence of his leadership.

But since the fatal shooting of Eric J. Logan by a South Bend police officer on June 16, that leadership has been tested. He has returned home from the campaign trail three times, used a bullhorn to answer a list of protesters’ demands and, on Sunday afternoon, listened to outraged residents who filled a high school auditorium near the western edge of city limits.

“A lot of tension in the air right now — you can cut it with a knife,” said Blu Casey, a South Bend activist who attended the town hall, in an interview.

As for the mayor? “He’s doing bad within the black community right now,” Mr. Casey said.

For Mr. Buttigieg the candidate, this is a critical time. The first Democratic debates are this week, an opportunity for him to prove to voters that the 37-year-old mayor of a midsize Midwestern city deserves consideration in a field brimming with senators, governors and a former vice president.

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For Mr. Buttigieg the mayor, the stakes may be even higher. Even as his national profile grew, Mr. Buttigieg never fully overcame the firing of a black police chief early in his tenure as mayor. Some black residents have felt left behind in the South Bend resurgence Mr. Buttigieg describes on the campaign trail. And the death of Mr. Logan, 54, has added to longstanding tensions between African-Americans and the city’s police department.

Some in the audience spoke words of support for the mayor. Others shouted disapproval of his handling of the situation. And many referred to past incidents involving the South Bend police that they said had eroded their trust.

On Sunday, Mr. Buttigieg said he would ask for a federal investigation of the shooting and for a special prosecutor to be appointed. He also acknowledged failures in implementing body cameras and in diversifying the police force.

“There’s a lot beneath the surface when it comes to trust and legitimacy around policing and race in our city,” Mr. Buttigieg said.

Few details are known about the shooting of Mr. Logan by Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, a 19-year veteran of the South Bend police. Officers had been called around 3:30 that morning to an apartment building near downtown to investigate a person going through cars. Investigators said Sergeant O’Neill found Mr. Lucas partially inside a vehicle, and that Mr. Lucas then approached the officer with a knife raised. Sergeant O’Neill, who was wearing a body camera but had not turned it on, then shot him.

Protesters have requested that an outside agency review the case, but the St. Joseph County prosecutor has so far declined to request a special prosecutor.