A new front is opening in the battle over South Bend’s secret police tapes. The family of Eric Logan, the black man shot dead by police this summer, is seeking the tapes as part of their federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city, their attorney told The Young Turks.
Attorney Brian Coffman told TYT that he already served subpoenas last week on a dozen entities — including South Bend law enforcement, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s office, and even the Democratic National Committee — for documentary evidence related to Logan’s death on June 16.
Coffman said that if Buttigieg discussed the Logan case with the DNC, that communication would not be privileged because it falls outside the scope of his mayoral duties. McClatchy recently reported that the Buttigieg campaign commissioned an internal study in mid-July to assess his standing with black South Carolina voters. (Neither Buttigieg nor the DNC responded to emails requesting comment.)
Police said Logan was shot after threatening Sgt. Ryan O’Neill with a knife. O’Neill appears to have approached Logan while responding to a report of car break-ins. Both O’Neill and an officer on scene shortly after the shooting had histories of racial complaints against them.
O'Neill was wearing a body camera during his encounter with Logan but did not activate it. The shooting is now under investigation by a special prosecutor.
Coffman previously told TYT that the suit would allege a pattern by South Bend — prior to Logan’s death — of turning a blind eye to police racism. Coffman now says the tapes could help establish that pattern.
TYT reported in September that Buttigieg’s attorneys for years have had secret documents describing the tapes’ contents and alleging that police in 2011 discussed using Buttigieg’s mayoral campaign donors to get rid of Darryl Boykins, the city’s first black police chief. One officer is quoted saying, “It is going to be a fun time when all white people are in charge.”
Capt. Dave Wells on a radio show last week denied TYT’s report that the documents described him using racist language to discuss Boykins. Wells said, “That TYT story says I was talking in ebonics or some — whatever that means — uh, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Although Buttigieg has said he wants to know what is on the tapes, he has yet to comment on TYT’s report and, according to his presidential campaign, he kept his distance from the documents his lawyers had revealing the tapes’ contents. (In 2013, his lawyers asked the police employee who made the tapes at least 15 questions about what she heard. Her answers comprised one of the documents that Buttigieg’s lawyers have had ever since, but its existence had not been known until TYT’s report.)
Buttigieg fired the employee and demoted Boykins for their handling of the tapes. Both sued the city and received financial settlements.
Asked about the Buttigieg campaign's reference to a firewall of sorts between him and his attorneys, Coffman said, "I've never heard of that before." He said, “If the client is telling the attorneys I want you to do this for me but don’t tell me about it, it doesn’t make much sense to me at all, because the attorney’s job is to advise their clients as to any type of work they’re doing on their behalf. No attorney can do their job without properly communicating with their clients and making sure that the client’s needs are met.”
Coffman said he planned this week or early next week, as part of his discovery process, to request that Boykins hand over any copies of the tapes. Boykins’ lawyer, Tom Dixon, told TYT that Boykins has no copies.
Coffman said he will also ask the city of South Bend to turn over the tapes. The city's Common Council has been in court for years trying to seek their release.
But Coffman said he may try other avenues, as well. “We’re kind of batting the idea around right now, as we broaden our net and potentially send subpoenas out to other individuals, potentially the city council of South Bend [and] some other ancillary individuals.”
Asked what relevance the tapes could have to Logan’s death, Coffman said, “It could be a peek into the window of what is actually going on in the city of South Bend and the South Bend Police Department, as far as their race relations with the citizens, how they discipline their officers, how do they train them. All of that is in play.”
Referring to Boykins, Coffman said, "The demotion itself is potential proof of the policy and practice… What was the atmosphere? What were certain things that officers could get away with, knowing that they would not be held accountable for their actions?"
Pursuing the tapes is likely to lead to the same kind of legal barriers that have kept them sealed up since their existence was revealed in 2012. Coffman said he anticipates legal challenges similar to those by several police officers who have opposed the Common Council's request for the tapes.
The Council’s attorney decided last month not to take testimony that could verify TYT’s reporting about the tapes’ contents. But Coffman indicated he may follow a different path.
TYT asked Coffman about the prospect of taking testimony from Buttigieg, or even from Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s presidential campaign manager who served as his mayoral chief of staff during the Boykins matter.
“We may do both in this case,” Coffman said, indicating he could seek their depositions in addition to pursuing the tapes. “Typically, the playbook is to gather evidence, documents, to review and if there are depositions that need to be taken, we do have the subpoena power to bring those individuals in for deposition.”
Whatever path Coffman takes, the road ahead is unclear, if only because it crosses multiple jurisdictions. Coffman said he does not know whether his federal suit could supercede the legal proceedings now under way in state court.
Similarly, the parties Coffman wants evidence from could oppose his efforts, which could extend the battle even further.
Coffman said he may expand the scope of his inquiries to seek internal information about other incidents, including some of TYT's reporting, as well.
This summer TYT reported that a black woman sought help from Buttigieg re-opening the case of the hanging death of her 16-year-old son, but Buttigieg did not respond. And a state police document leaked to TYT raised questions about Buttigieg's handling of accusations that his white chief failed to back up a black lieutenant.
The Logan case is not Coffman's first. In 2013, Coffman sued the city of Chicago on behalf of the family of Cedrick Chatman, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by police while running away. The city settled the suit for $3 million.