Second in a series on Pete Buttigieg’s 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.
For years, Pete Buttigieg has blamed South Bend’s first black police chief for a federal investigation into police recordings of internal phone lines. But the investigation only occurred because Buttigieg failed to act, according to the cops who filed the initial complaint.
Buttigieg was asked to handle the matter internally, specifically to avoid giving the city or the police department a black eye, the officers told The Young Turks. But Buttigieg chose to do nothing. His inaction left them no choice, the officers said.
In May 2012, after a U.S. attorney said that no charges would be filed regarding the “mistakenly recorded” police phone calls, Buttigieg said just the investigation alone warranted demoting Chief Darryl Boykins. “If you make mistakes serious enough to bring on a federal investigation into your department, you cannot keep a leadership post in this administration,” Buttigieg said.
Last month, Buttigieg told the Associated Press that he also fired South Bend Police Department (SBPD) Communications Director Karen DePaepe, who first discovered the recordings and transferred some onto cassette tapes for Boykins, “because her actions led to a federal felony investigation into the police department.”
Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s first chief of staff and now his campaign manager, said in a written statement to the AP, “The people whose actions prompted a federal investigation into the police department could not remain in their positions.”
But according to current and former police officers who spoke directly with Schmuhl about the issue in 2012, the federal investigation only happened due to his inaction and Buttigieg's. Their account is largely corroborated by Schmuhl’s secret 2013 deposition, which TYT first revealed last September.
The officers last week broke their silence about what they said on the tapes, denying any racist intent, but confirming discussions with Buttigieg and his donors about replacing Boykins. According to their version of what secretly happened in early 2012, years of civic strife could have been avoided if Buttigieg had dealt with the issue himself.
Steve Richmond, then-chief of the SBPD Investigative Division, says he and Capt. Brian Young asked Schmuhl for help in January 2012.
In a phone interview, Richmond told TYT he was consulting his notes from the time, and said that he first tried to connect with Buttigieg but instead he and Young got a meeting with Schmuhl at 12:05 pm on Jan. 18. They briefed Schmuhl on the situation.
Young wanted the recording of his line stopped. Richmond had interviewed for the chief’s job the month before and told Schmuhl he needed help because Boykins was now threatening to demote or fire him for disloyalty. There were rumors that recordings of Young’s line captured racist rhetoric by some officers.
Richmond recounted their meeting with Schmuhl, saying they explicitly sought to avoid a public scandal.
What I told Schmuhl — what Brian and I told him — I was speaking to him: "Mr. Schmuhl, this whole thing isn’t about me not being selected as chief of police." I told him, "I’ve lived my whole adult life, except for the [seven] years I was an electrician, at that police department. I love the police department and the men and women in blue that work in the police department and I don’t wanna do anything that’s gonna give the department a black eye." And I certainly didn’t want to have any kind of a negative repercussion on the brand new administration.
I said, "But I need help and will you please help me? You know, I need somebody that’s got more authority than me to put a stop to this, to figure out what’s going on and why it’s happening." Again, I reiterated a few times in that meeting that this isn’t about not being selected as chief. That’s nonsense, y’know. I don’t want to embarrass the police department.
Richmond said he told Schmuhl he had limited avenues to pursue. “I said, ‘I can't go to Internal Affairs because I don't know who's all involved in this.’ I said, ‘I'm not going to take it to the state police because if it's a federal thing then the FBI needs to be involved in it; please help us.’ And his comment was, yeah, he was going to talk to the mayor because… we can't have a police chief who’s committing crimes.”
Young’s account is similar: “We told Schmuhl that we didn't want a black eye on the city. We didn’t want a black eye on the police department… We weren't looking for any money. We said we don't want a nickel, we don't want a big circus about this. We just want it to stop.”
According to Richmond, Schmuhl said he would talk to Buttigieg.
After the meeting, Schmuhl called Richmond to follow up. Richmond says, “He called back later that day and said that he had made the mayor aware of the situation but they weren't going to do anything.”
Schmuhl’s deposition supports Richmond's account. However, Schmuhl does not disclose that the officers called the feds only in response to Buttigieg’s inaction. Instead, Schmuhl testifies that he and Buttigieg took no action because the feds got involved. He does not explain why they took no action beforehand and never reveals that they had a chance to head off the investigation at the outset.
Q: Did you ever learn about how the federal authorities got involved in the investigation or what caused the investigation to start?
Schmuhl: Yes. Certain police officers approached the FBI with some complaints to look into that issue.
Q: How did you learn that information, or from where did you get that information?
Schmuhl: Two of the officers came to my office in the County-City Building to complain early on in our time in office, in January, to say that they thought their personal telephone conversations were being recorded and that the chief of police was listening to those conversations.
Schmuhl: Steven Richmond emailed me following the meeting to thank me for meeting with him and said--and sort of re-outlined what he said in the meeting and also said in that message that he was thinking of taking their complaint to an investigative authority.
Q: What did you do as a result of this information?
Schmuhl: I told the mayor about it, and that’s about it. I absorbed the information.
Q: Do you know if the mayor took any steps or any action?
Schmuhl: We didn’t have to. A day or two later I got a call from [U.S. Attorney] David Capp saying that they were going to look into some issues in the South Bend Police Department.
Q: But before you got that call, you didn’t take any steps on behalf of the city to look into it?
At the time, Tim Corbett was commander of the County Metro Homicide Unit (CMHU). He told TYT that he also told Schmuhl to “fucking do something.”
Schmuhl testified about this exchange, as well, but again gives no explanation as to why the city took no action.
Schmuhl: …I had a meeting with Tim Corbett on or around the same time, and he complained as well about the same issues.
Q: What specifically did he complain about?
Schmuhl: That he thought that former Chief Boykins was listening to private telephone conversations with certain officers on the police force.
Q: What else did he say? Did he say how he knew that?
Q; Did you ask him or did you just listen?
Schmuhl: I just listened.
Q: Do you remember doing anything specific, taking any action or informing anyone of that meeting with Mr. Corbett after the meeting?
Schmuhl: I don’t think so, no.
Q: What specifically do you recall Mr. Corbett telling you?
Schmuhl: He was upset and he was mad. He thought the chief was listening to personal or private conversations of officers, people that he knows and works with. And he said that somebody should look into it, should have an investigation. That’s about it.
Richmond says he asked Schmuhl why he and Buttigieg were not going to do anything. Schmuhl responded, “We’re just not going to get involved with this,” Richmond says.
Richmond says he told Schmuhl, “Then you leave me no other choice. I’m not gonna stand by and just have this thing ruin my career.”
The next day, Richmond called the U.S. attorney’s office. Soon after that, the U.S. attorney’s office called the city to let the mayor’s office know an investigation was under way.
Buttigieg, however, has said he learned about the investigation from federal authorities and that he should have heard about it from Boykins first. That story remains similar on the campaign trail today.
Last month, Buttigieg told Antonia Hylton of Vice, “When federal investigators came to South Bend and were investigating practices in the department, and I did not find out from [Boykins], that changed our relationship. It changed my ability to have him in the role.”
Buttigieg has never disclosed that he had a chance to head off that investigation, that he learned an investigation was possible before the cops even went to the feds, or when he thinks Boykins learned about it. He has also never explained why he never told Boykins as soon as he heard about it from Schmuhl on Jan. 18. (The campaign did not respond to emailed questions and requests for comment.)
The city also made no attempt to mediate the situation either internally or with federal prosecutors after the investigation began. On March 23 2012, prosecutors gave the city 60 days to address its personnel issues and taping policies.
Three days later, Boykins was told to resign to avoid indictment, and was ultimately demoted on March 30. DePaepe was fired soon after.
Eight years later, the cops on the recordings say they think Buttigieg could have prevented the scandal — and even left Boykins as chief — had he decided to do something. Although some of the cops on the tapes are said to insult or mock Boykins, all denied using racist rhetoric or harboring racial animus toward fellow officers, and some suggested that a chance to explain themselves at the time could have mitigated the fallout.
According to then-Lt. Dave Wells, DePaepe heard only parts of ongoing discussions, and misunderstood or misinterpreted some of their remarks: A literal game of Telephone that could have ended very differently.
Richmond does not appear to be on the tapes at all, and told TYT he was nothing but positive about Boykins during his interview for the chief's job. According to Richmond, Boykins confronted him about the interview, saying he heard Richmond insulted him to the mayor-elect.
When Richmond asked Boykins whether his sources were credible, he says, Boykins said no, but still considered Richmond a backstabber. It's not clear whether Boykins at this point knew that Corbett actually had insulted him to Buttigieg in December, or that cops other than Richmond had been recorded insulting Boykins and allegedly using "ebonics" to mock him. It's also not clear what Buttigieg's team shared with others about their interviews with Richmond and Corbett.
Either way, some of the cops describe the situation as one of gossip and miscommunication, that could have been resolved with help from the top.
Wells told TYT Buttigieg could have settled the problem by talking to everyone. “This would have been settled in a room… had he done just that and got us all in a room together to hash out what was going on, instead of the secret bullshit that was going on behind the scenes… had we had that one, half-hour meeting, this thing would have been over. But instead, he didn’t know what he was doing. He was soaking wet behind the ears.”
Wells said, “Had he been a little more experienced with this kind of inter-acting, inner-circle politics and how things work, he could’ve snubbed this out immediately and left Darryl Boykins as chief of police.”
Corbett said, “They were told that Richmond and Young were going to go to the FBI, so there were numerous chances to get this thing taken care of and they just didn’t handle it right.”
“I wasn't looking for anybody to go to prison or anything like that,” Corbett said. “We were: Destroy the tapes, don't do it again, don't do it to anybody again. It would have been a done deal. Nobody would have known. We’d have just, you know, hey, look, let’s just, you know, go on with stuff.”
Instead, the city’s trajectory changed dramatically from that moment on. The black community turned out in force to defend Boykins. And before legal concerns made Boykins and DePaepe go quiet, she alluded publicly to possible racist rhetoric by cops on the tapes.
One black officer previously told TYT that removing Boykins undid his progress in SBPD promotions. “Pete Buttigieg, by the demotion of Darryl Boykins, set the department back years,” the officer said.
And the impact was bigger than Boykins.
Chief Scott Ruszkowski told TYT, “It’s had an enormous impact [on the SBPD], from hiring to retaining and trying to simply service our 95-100k calls per year.” He said, “Morale has taken an extreme hit, as well, for every officer regardless of race, gender, or rank.”
Pressed about the lagging diversity of his police force, Buttigieg said last year, “I couldn’t get it done.”
And the scandal reverberated beyond the police department. Henry Davis is a black city leader, a Common Council member during the tapes scandal and again today. He said the scandal has “plagued our community for over eight years [and] will forever be known as a documented miscarriage of justice.”
In May 2012, after the federal investigation ended, U.S. Attorney Capp wrote that his office had concluded, “No federal prosecution is warranted.”
Next: Why Buttigieg didn’t act.