SOUTH BEND, Indiana — For as long as Pete Buttigieg has been mayor, South Bend police Officer Aaron Knepper has been a problem.
He punched and tased a young black man he mistook for someone else in 2012. He was the subject of an excessive force settlement in 2014. He was accused of misconduct in his arrest of a Notre Dame football player in 2016. Activists in town launched a “Fire Knepper” campaign that year.
But even after repeated allegations of misconduct, after a suspension, after being pulled off the street — and then promptly returning to it — Knepper still has a job that put him at the center of a police shooting this month that left a black man dead and Buttigieg’s presidential campaign reeling. Knepper didn’t fire the shots, but he did transport the man in his car. His involvement in the shooting was another red flag for activists.
Buttigieg — who has been a surprise standout in the 2020 presidential race, often boasting about leading one of the country’s “best-run” cities — said there’s nothing he can do about it.
In Thursday night’s presidential debate, Buttigieg was asked about police accountability in his city after this month’s shooting. “We’ve taken so many steps towards police accountability,” he said, that the police labor union “denounced me for too much accountability, we’re obviously not there yet, and I accept responsibility for that because I’m in charge.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, one of his opponents, interjected to say Buttigieg should fire the police chief if the officer who fired the shots did not have his body camera on during the incident.
“So under Indiana law this will be investigated, and there will be accountability for the officer involved,” he began.
“But you’re the mayor, you should fire the chief, if that’s the policy and someone died,” Swalwell responded.
In a town hall this past Sunday that teetered on the verge of chaos, constituents pressed him on a range of issues: Why does the city have a policy that gives police officers so much discretion over when they turn on their body cameras? Why was the victim of the recent shooting, 54-year-old Eric Logan, transported to the hospital in a patrol car driven by Knepper, who was not involved in the shooting itself, instead of ambulance? Why should the community trust the mayor to institute effective change?
When Buttigieg was able to get a word in, he made a promise: “If anyone on patrol is shown to be a racist or to do something racist in a way that is substantiated, that is their last day on the street,” he vowed. And yet, he argued, the firing of individual police officers is something he does not control.
It’s a side step of responsibility that has activists and black leaders in the city seriously frustrated with their mayor, and one that demonstrates the gap between the story Buttigieg is selling on the campaign trail and the realities at home.
And the way the mayor has handled Knepper’s case highlights the ways he has — and has not — wielded power in South Bend and exemplifies his struggle to build relationships with communities of color in the city that he leads.
“These kind of issues have not been his priorities,” Oliver Davis, the longest-serving black member of the South Bend Common Council, said in an interview this week. “He responds when he has to, but you go back to April, and they were saying the whole makeup of his campaign staff lacked diversity, OK?” The result shows “a pattern,” he said.
The South Bend Police Department under Buttigieg has also gotten consistently whiter, as CNN reported earlier this week, despite promises from the mayor in recent years to diversify the city’s police department. In 2012, there were 29 black officers on the force. By 2019, just 15 out of the department’s 242 sworn officers are black, making up just 6.2% of the force.
Due in large part to the power of police unions, officers in the United States are notoriously difficult to fire, and the process under Indiana state law is complicated.
In order to be fired from the force — following an incident and internal affairs investigation — the police chief determines how to discipline an officer. The chief then brings that decision to a local public safety board, which has the ultimate authority to decide what action is warranted, including whether the officer ought to be fired.
But mayors have real power over the board.
“The key thing is this: When it comes to the Board of Public Safety, he appoints all them. So the responsibility is through his appointment,” Davis told BuzzFeed News. “[The mayor] can remove [members] at any time. They work at his pleasure. That’s why it’s more of a buffer.”
Buttigieg’s office confirmed that the mayor has the power to fire any board members and confirmed that all current members of the board were appointed by Buttigieg.
Buttigieg’s campaign declined to comment, pointing to the mayor’s statements at Sunday’s town hall and referring BuzzFeed News to his city office. Asked to comment on how Buttigieg responds to people saying he has shirked responsibility, Genevieve Miller, Buttigieg’s deputy chief of staff in South Bend, offered a comment from 2016.
“Obviously, a firing-level personnel decision is made by the Board of Public Safety,” he said at the time. “But just to be clear, I accept responsibility for appointments to the Board of Public Safety and [police] chief.”
As Buttigieg and his staff have pointed out repeatedly, the board — which currently has four members and one open seat — is majority minority. Its president is a retired police officer, a fact that infuriates some local activists, including Jorden Giger, who organized the Fire Knepper campaign several years ago.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Giger said he, too, sees the mayor using the board as a buffer, as Davis described it.
“The mayor wants to throw it off to the police chief, he wants to throw it off to the Board of Public Safety, it’s everybody but him. ‘Oh, I don’t have control, I don’t have that,’” Giger said. “But you have the power to fire the chief of police. Let’s focus on the power that you do have, OK? And you appoint the board! So what are you talking about?”
The trouble with Knepper began in 2012, when the South Bend officer, along with two other officers in town, entered the home of a local family without a warrant and grabbed a sleeping 18-year-old, DeShawn Franklin. Franklin, startled by waking up to three men in his bedroom, charged one of the officers, who punched him in the face three times.
Knepper then punched Franklin three more times in the shoulder and then tased him, according to an Indy Star report. The officer asked Franklin if he knew why he was going to jail. Franklin said he didn’t.
“He said I matched the description of a person that they was looking for because of my hair,” Franklin told the paper. “I told them that this hairstyle was popular right now and a lot of people have it, and I can’t go to jail for something I didn’t do.”
The officers then realized they had the wrong man.
Following the incident, Franklin’s family sued the city. Four years later, a federal jury decided the officers were liable for unlawful entry and unlawful seizure — but in another blow to the family, the jury awarded them just a single dollar for each violation. In total, the family received $18. And later, the city asked them to pay $1,500 in court fees.
The case got national attention and put Knepper on the map. In the seven years since, his name has popped up again and again in controversial cases.
Just one month after invading the Franklin home, Knepper and the same two officers involved in the Franklin case, Officers Eric Mentz and Michael Stuk, were, according to local media reports, asked by a 7-Eleven clerk with a learning disability to stop a drunk driver who had just left the store. The clerk, Jonathan Ferguson, filed a complaint saying that the officers told him they didn’t want to do the paperwork.
Instead, they offered Ferguson $30 and an Applebee’s gift card to do the “cinnamon challenge,” getting him to eat a spoonful of dry cinnamon in less than a minute, causing him to choke. Ferguson reportedly vomited for several hours following the incident. The cops recorded video of the incident and posted it online. (It has since been taken down.)
“The actions of these officers was despicable — they did it for their own amusement,” Johnny Ulmer, Ferguson’s attorney, said in 2016. “These officers frequented that 7-Eleven. They knew that Jonathan was mentally deficient and that, in part, is why they chose him.”
The lawsuit was later settled.
Two years later, Knepper allegedly assaulted a local golfer, and the city settled the excessive force lawsuit last year, paying out $15,000. And then, in 2016, Knepper was involved in an altercation with Notre Dame football player Devin Butler — police said Butler slammed Knepper on the ground outside a bar; other witnesses said Butler was tackled by officers from behind.
Ultimately, Butler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and apologized to Knepper as part of the agreement, but the incident still sent activists in town over the edge and sparked the Fire Knepper campaign. In September 2016, Chief Scott Ruszkowski removed Knepper from street patrol. Four months later, he was back.
And then, earlier this month, Knepper’s name was in the news again: He responded to the Logan shooting, and transported Logan in his patrol car, instead of waiting for an ambulance. Logan was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Ruszkowski “never gave a reasonable explanation as to why Aaron Knepper put a 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound black man in the back of a police car,” Giger said this week. “They were two minutes away from a hospital. It makes no sense.”
At Sunday’s town hall, Ruszkowski said he stood behind any decision an officer makes to save a victim’s life.
“As quick as we can get somebody within that golden hour to the operating room — not just the ER, the operating room — is the most optimal time we can to save somebody’s life,” he said. But, he admitted, “I don’t know if those are the exact circumstances that happened Sunday.”
Rev. Sylvester Williams Jr., who founded local Christian music and talk radio station WUBS, said he, too, believes the mayor needs to step in with Knepper.
“There’s a call from the people that he should be surely fired, because he’s lost the confidence of the people, and the people have lost confidence in him, so he cannot serve the community under [that] umbrella,” Williams Jr. said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It’s up to the mayor to let Knepper know that he’s got to go. Where can he serve without having this kind of a sentiment that he’s not for the people, that he’s not going to serve and protect?”
When BuzzFeed News asked Williams Jr. if he had faith the mayor would do what he could to handle the Knepper situation, the reverend was blunt. “No,” he said. “He has only showed a stiff hand when it comes to minority officers.”
When you talk to black residents in South Bend about policing, Buttigieg’s firing of the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, inevitably comes up. Buttigieg had been mayor for barely three months when allegations surfaced that Boykins had, without authorization, recorded the phone calls of some of his officers.
The reason? The officers were allegedly using racist language, including when talking about Boykins himself. Buttigieg removed the chief, citing a federal investigation into the wiretap. The tapes have never been released.
But Buttigieg’s struggles to connect with the black community started before he even took office, at least according to Trina Robinson, a former South Bend NAACP president, who served from 2001–11. When he was first running for mayor, Robinson told BuzzFeed News, Buttigieg sought her advice for connecting with the black community.
“I was a little disappointed when he became mayor for the sheer fact that his Cabinet did not reflect the community in which he served,” Robinson said.
In her eyes, it’s a problem that continues to dog the mayor today.
“You got to look at the dynamics. The chief is placed by the mayor and the mayor says he has faith and confidence in that chief … and the mayor then appoints the Board of Public Safety,” she said. “Now, if you think about what the mayor has done thus far, he has surrounded himself with people who have like minds with him. He’s not surrounding himself with people who will address the elephant in the room, so, therefore, you have a Board of Public Safety that he has appointed, and then you want the community to trust you? No, that’s not going to happen.”
Since launching his campaign, Buttigieg has struggled to court black voters. An April Morning Consult poll found him at just 2% among black American voters; however, a recent Change Research poll found him surging in South Carolina, where he is now polling at about 6%. Buttigieg has also been working to cultivate relationships with national black American leaders, including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, with some success.
In the wake of the Franklin case, Buttigieg said he had been reflecting on the relationship between the police and diverse communities, calling it “one of the most important and sensitive things that we have to get right.”
Five years later, by his own admission, it’s something he still hasn’t figured out.
In a campaign email last week, he wrote, “All police work and all of American life takes place in the shadow of racism, which hurts everyone and everything it touches. Historic racism, present-day racism, and generational racism — they all secrete a kind of poison into the bloodstream of this country.”
The remark apparently infuriated the Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union (which did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News). While the FOP has remained mostly quiet following Logan’s death, it did release a statement Monday condemning Buttigieg’s handling of the episode.
“Mayor Buttigieg’s focus on this incident is solely for his political gain and not the health of the city he serves,” the release said. It was signed by the executive board of FOP Lodge 36, whose names were listed along the side. The third name read “Aaron Knepper, Treasurer.”