Pete Buttigieg discusses issues including his demotion of South Bend's black police chief, with Jeff Fard of The Free Think Zone on Jan. 8.

 

(Image: Screengrab of Brother Jeff video.)

Buttigieg Always Planned to Remove Black Police Chief

Third in a series on Pete Buttigieg’s 2012 demotion of South Bend’s first black police chief and internal recordings of police phone lines. This series is based on interviews with South Bend political insiders and police sources, including the police at the center of the tapes scandal, some of whom are breaking their silence for the first time. You can read the first installment here.

Eight years ago, Pete Buttigieg removed Darryl Boykins as South Bend’s first black police chief.

Today, Buttigieg explains that he demoted Boykins for failing to tell him about a federal investigation into police recordings of internal phone lines. He says he gets asked about it a lot, but is rarely asked why he kept Boykins in the first place.

In fact, Buttigieg always planned to remove Boykins. He has said so privately, The Young Turks has learned, and even, in a little-noticed passage, in his own book.

Buttigieg demoted Boykins after federal prosecutors determined that the South Bend Police Department (SBPD) was not in compliance with wiretapping laws. U.S. Attorney David Capp said in May 2012 that one line had been “mistakenly recorded.”

TYT reported earlier this week that some of the police who had been recorded first told Buttigieg Chief of Staff Mike Schmuhl that they wanted the new mayor to address the situation, without going to the feds and possibly giving the department and the city a black eye. Buttigieg decided to do nothing about it.

The demotion of Boykins ignited outrage, especially in the black community. The SBPD employee fired for listening to the recordings alleged publicly that the recordings included white officers making racist remarks and planning Boykins’ ouster.

TYT revealed last year that Buttigieg’s attorneys for years have had secret legal documents in which that employee details her account of what is on the tapes. The cops recently confirmed to TYT that they discussed replacing Boykins with both Buttigieg and his donors, but denied any racist intent or that they said some of the most inflammatory remarks.

Privately, Buttigieg has said he knew demoting Boykins would haunt him. Today, his presidential campaign is lagging with black voters. Last month, when Antonia Hylton of Vice News grilled Buttigieg about Boykins, he responded:

I get a lot of questions about why I removed a black police chief. Almost never do I get a question about why I appointed a black police chief in the first place. It was largely because of his expertise and strength when it came to community policing. But when federal investigators came to South Bend and were investigating practices in the department, and I did not find out from him, that changed our relationship. It changed my ability to have him in the role that he was in.

That has been Buttigieg’s narrative about this turning point in the city’s history, suggesting that he first wanted Boykins as his permanent chief, and that Boykins found out about the investigation before he did. But according to documents obtained by The Young Turks, and sources close to the major players, almost everything about this narrative is false.

As one insider put it, the federal investigation “gave Pete the green light to fire the police chief, but he had wanted to fire the police chief since the beginning.” Asked how they knew Buttigieg felt this way, the insider said, “He told me.”

And Buttigieg had his reasons.

“Strategic Planning”

TYT has already reported that Buttigieg’s donors heard complaints about Boykins, some of which Buttigieg echoes in his book. And one insider confirmed to TYT that, “There were some complaints against [Boykins]” from Buttigieg’s inner circle. “He knew there were problems with Boykins over the course of the campaign before he was even mayor.”

But Buttigieg was favorably impressed by one candidate for Boykins’ job.

Steve Richmond was chief of the SBPD Investigative Division. He told TYT that in the summer of 2011, Boykins suggested that he ready a presentation, in case the new mayor wanted a new police chief.

After winning the election, Buttigieg sat down with three candidates for the chief’s job. Boykins was one. Richmond was another — and his presentation was a strategic plan for the department.

“Buttigieg told me — from my interview and what he knew of me — he felt that I was a very analytical person and a strategist,” Richmond said.

A day or two after Christmas, Buttigieg called Richmond to tell him he was keeping Boykins. But he also wanted what Richmond had to offer.

“He said you are much like me, and I would like to know if you would want to meet with me from time to time as I look at things and give me your input.” (Buttigieg’s campaign told TYT it’s not unusual for mayors to meet with division chiefs, but did not respond when asked whether Buttigieg met with any other than Richmond.)

If Buttigieg’s interest in Richmond implied less than total confidence in Boykins, his meeting with Tim Corbett made it explicit.

Corbett was the commander of the county homicide unit, and the other person to interview for the chief’s job. It didn’t go well. “I pretty much got the impression from Buttigieg that he was going to be a tree-hugging, whale-saving, Earth muffin, and that's what he wanted for a police department.”

When Buttigieg met with Corbett to tell him he didn't get the job, they discussed Boykins. According to Corbett, Buttigieg said that “they were going to help Boykins with strategic planning.”

Buttigieg didn’t explain why he thought Boykins needed the help. “He didn’t need to tell me, I knew,” Corbett says.

“When [Buttigieg] said, ‘We're gonna work with Boykins on strategic planning,’ I looked at him and said, ‘Boykins can’t even spell strategic planning.’” Asked whether Buttigieg pushed back or disagreed with that assessment, Corbett said, “No, no.”

It wasn't just strategy where some cops thought Boykins fell short. According to then-Lt. Dave Wells, also in the homicide unit, Boykins was known for mangling words. “It was always everybody’s, kind of, little joke.”

It’s not clear how much Buttigieg knew about or shared these sentiments. But as one source said, “The way Pete talked about Boykins was that he was incompetent.”

“There was nothing more that Pete wanted than to be, like: ‘Turned South Bend around.’” But Boykins wasn’t part of the plan. “We want our own guys to build this city.”

Tom Price, an assistant to the previous mayor, said that during the transition, the Buttigieg team wanted “young, peppy” people who might fit in with the new regime.

The most authoritative evidence of Buttigieg’s original intention to remove Boykins is his own book, “Shortest Way Home.” He never names Boykins, but explicitly says that when he took office, he planned eventually to make changes at the police department, including new leadership.

Assessing the department, Buttigieg writes, “It was clear by the time I first took office that the department needed attention.”

He says, “The place would need an overhaul, sooner or later,” adding that, “reforming the police department would be a major task, requiring new leadership…”

Ultimately, he decided to “save major police department reforms for a future year.” His failure to make changes immediately, he writes, “turned out to be my first mistake as mayor.”

The book also contradicts Buttigieg’s public narrative about his decision-making. In an email exchange last month, the campaign told The Root that Buttigieg, “decided to retain Boykins in December, 2011.”

“That’s just a lie,” one insider said. And the book appears to agree.

In it, Buttigieg refers to a confrontation between Boykins and Richmond, when Boykins accused Richmond and Capt. Brian Young of disloyalty. Speculating why Boykins might feel insecure in his position, Buttigieg writes, “Perhaps the chief didn’t realize that I was already leaning toward reappointing him…”

Buttigieg doesn’t identify when this happened, but Richmond and Young said in a lawsuit that it was Jan. 6, 2012. By Buttigieg’s own account, then, he was only “leaning toward” keeping Boykins one week after becoming mayor, and one month after the campaign currently claims he had already decided.

Schmuhl testified in a secret 2013 deposition that they decided before Buttigieg took office that Boykins “would remain as chief…” But Schmuhl is never asked whether Boykins would remain permanently, or temporarily.

“I Did Not Find Out From Him”

The mayor of South Bend has the power to remove the chief of police at will. Buttigieg could have done it at any time, for any reason. And he had several opportunities.

He could have replaced Boykins on day one. But he was also not retaining mayoral assistant Lynn Coleman, a black man. And he was replacing the city’s black fire chief, Howard Buchanon (TYT previously revealed that Buchanon’s replacement was the stepson of an early Buttigieg fundraiser).

Boykins was the last black man standing in the upper ranks of a city that’s one quarter black. And Buttigieg, one source said, “Was smart enough to know that he couldn’t fire the first black police chief.”

Buttigieg praised Boykins in his book for “youth mentorship” and “other community work,” but also alluded to Boykins’ importance to the black community. Boykins was “well liked in the community. As the first African-American chief in our city’s history, he had been uniquely able to build confidence between communities of color and the department as a whole…”

More recently, Buttigieg has played down Boykins’ political significance. Instead, he says, the reason he kept Boykins at first “was largely because of his expertise and strength when it came to community policing.”

“I chose him,” Buttigieg told Jeff Fard of the Free Think Zone, “for a lot of reasons, including his ability to navigate racial issues in our community and community policing.”

But two sources — one political and one police, both sympathetic to Boykins — said Boykins did nothing unusual regarding community policing. And a google search turned up no instance of Buttigieg praising Boykins for community policing prior to 2019. (Buttigieg lauded another chief for “deepen[ing]” the SBPD’s commitment to community policing; a city survey later called for increasing it.)

But if removing Boykins was too dicey on day one, Buttigieg had another opportunity when Richmond and Young complained about Boykins to Schmuhl. So why didn’t he take it?

“I honestly don’t think he knew how,” said a source who was close to Buttigieg. According to Schmuhl’s testimony, he got no training before becoming chief of staff. And for Buttigieg to seek advice from others, the source said, would have shown weakness or even ineptitude.

“A guy who thinks he's the smartest person in any room ever… wasn't going to go to some unknown and be like, ‘Hey, how do I fire this guy?’”

Richmond also suggests ineptitude. When the crisis exploded, Richmond confronted a city attorney about Buttigieg’s failure to address the situation back in January.

I asked her flat-out why didn't the mayor remove Boykins as chief of police because of the threats and intimidation and this creation of a hostile work environment. And her response to me was that the facts that Brian [Young] and I had shared with Schmuhl apparently had never been properly presented to the Human Resources department or the city attorney's office.

And the city’s then-head of human resources told the Associated Press last month that Schmuhl gave Buttigieg bad advice. “They had not a lot of experience,” Janice Hall said.

In fact, Hall was shut out of the process entirely. She said there was “so much secretiveness” and that she “would have wanted to hear the facts.”

Unlike taking action on his own, a federal investigation offered Buttigieg a chance to remove Boykins while keeping his hands clean. As TYT previously reported, Richmond claims he told Schmuhl they wanted to avoid the public scandal that could arise from FBI involvement.

Schmuhl responded that he consulted with Buttigieg and they decided not to do anything. “We didn’t have to,” he testified, because soon enough, the feds got involved.

TYT has already reported that Buttigieg knew about the investigation before Boykins did. In fact, it’s not clear when Boykins found out or when Buttigieg believes the chief should have told him about it.

But Boykins tried. He had been told about the recordings in 2011. As a new year, and a new mayor, approached, Boykins asked the employee, Karen DePaepe, to transfer some of the recordings to cassette tapes, and said he was planning to speak with the mayor about it.

When Buttigieg took office, Boykins began trying to get a meeting with the new mayor. The campaign did not directly deny that, but said, “The Mayor and the Chief were in regular communication. The Chief never told the Mayor about the tapes or the FBI investigation despite having ample opportunity to do so.”

The only meeting one source close to Boykins could recall was a public event in the police auditorium. Buttigieg’s calendar for January 2012 shows no meetings with Boykins.

To this day, Buttigieg has never publicly acknowledged that he knew about the cops’ complaints before Boykins or the feds did. And he has never said why he didn’t go to Boykins about it.

Instead, on March 23, prosecutors gave Buttigieg 60 days to address the city’s policy and personnel issues. The city eventually created a new policy. But Buttigieg moved fast on personnel, removing Boykins almost immediately, under circumstances that remain unclear.

“The Green Light”

When prosecutors told the city it was time to talk, Buttigieg sent three people: Schmuhl, a city attorney, and outside counsel Rich Hill.

Hill’s involvement drew attention almost immediately. He had minimal experience in federal law and criminal law. The city attorney told local media that Hill was brought in because she was on vacation. But both she and Hill were at the meeting with prosecutors, which had not yet come to light.

The city never clarified when Hill came in, and the campaign will not say. When TYT asked why Hill’s work on the issue did not show up in the billable hours filed by his firm for those months, the campaign said Hill had done the work pro bono.

A campaign spokesperson explained the pro bono work by noting that Hill had served as city attorney himself in the 1980s. The spokesperson did not explain why Hill billed the Buttigieg administration for other work in the same period unrelated to Boykins.

When questioned about Hill’s suitability for the issue, given his lack of relevant experience, the spokesperson said Hill had access to former federal prosecutors at his firm, Faegre Baker Daniels. But whether Hill made use of those resources is unclear.

For one thing, Hill told the AP he and the others emerged from the federal meeting with no doubts about how to proceed. And made no reference to seeking input from anyone.

“There was no discussion about what we heard,” Hill said. “We were all three equally clear of what the message was that we needed to deliver to the mayor.”

The message was "the green light" to remove Boykins. But the messenger wasn't merely outside counsel.

In addition to having been a city attorney, Hill was a Buttigieg donor, having given Buttigieg $1000 the year before. He also had ties to Corbett, the cop whose critique of Boykins included spelling. (In 2018, Hill and another Buttigieg donor, who had also heard Corbett’s complaints, joined forces to back a campaign loan for Corbett.)

Had Hill consulted with his colleagues, he might have learned that, as one former prosecutor told the AP, “Ultimately, the U.S. attorney’s office would have nothing to do with the hiring and firing of people.”

Buttigieg himself sought no advice from the Common Council. Or from the former cop who was then president of the Board of Public Safety, which has some SBPD oversight.

No one knew at the time that the feds had given the city 60 days. And there's no indication Buttigieg used any of that time to investigate the matter on his own, to hear from Boykins or DePaepe, or to explore legal options or alternate measures such as suspension or performance improvement. Instead, only three days after meeting with the prosecutors, Schmuhl told Boykins he could avoid prosecution by resigning, which he agreed to do.

When Boykins rescinded his resignation on March 30th, Buttigieg demoted him, instead. (He has never explained why he did not demote Boykins originally, if he believed that would suffice to head off an indictment.)

Lawyers for both Boykins and DePaepe maintain that their clients were never treated as suspects and were actually advised by FBI agents not to resign. TYT revealed in September that Schmuhl’s secret testimony included his admission that prosecutors never discussed potential arrests or indictments.

Even after the Boykins demotion blew up — with public protests and most of the Common Council signing a letter supporting Boykins — Buttigieg still had an out. One he now says he wishes he had exercised.

Specifically, Buttigieg told the AP he should have gotten something in writing from the feds, “so that years later, there wouldn’t be a need to defend my account of what I believe happened, but that we would have a document that we could point to that was clear.”

It turns out, however, that this option was suggested to Buttigieg at the time, and he didn’t take it. Buchanon, the former fire chief, told TYT that he and Buttigieg met for breakfast during the middle of the uproar.

Buchanon says he told Buttigieg, “If the feds had told you, ‘This is what you have to do,’ you should have gotten it in writing, and all this stuff would go away. You wouldn’t even have anybody saying anything, because you can just show them: ‘Here, this is documented; see this, this is showing what I had to do and why I had to do it.’ He said that didn't happen… he didn’t ask for anything in writing.”

Buchanon said he believes Buttigieg didn’t get it in writing because the feds never said it. Even after Buchanon’s suggestion, Buttigieg went on to fire DePaepe without getting anything in writing from the feds.

Ultimately, the city paid settlements of $235,000 and $50,000 to DePaepe and Boykins respectively. Recruitment, promotion, and retention of black officers faltered after Boykins left.

The SBPD is now less diverse than it was when Buttigieg came in. One thing that unites white and non-white officers today is low morale. And the tensions, suspicion, and division rippled beyond the police department.

It's true that, eight years later, the city has made some strides. But in some ways it’s still running from the dream of turning South Bend around.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

If you have tips on this subject or others you can contact us using Proton Mail at [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to stay on top of exclusive news stories from The Young Turks.

Getting ready...
Stuck? Try reloading the page.