As presidential candidate glows in spotlight, judge orders trial to determine whether secret audio tapes of alleged racist comments should be released to the public
By Erick Johnson
The media in Chicago are fawning over the visit of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The popular 37-year-old South Bend mayor is in the Windy City this week for his first round of fundraisers that have helped him land some influential donors who have supported former President Barack Obama. He returns May 16 for another round of fundraising as the presidential campaign season heats up with more candidates seeking to dethrone President Donald Trump.
But Buttigieg, his supporters and the Chicago media aren’t talking about his role in a scandal that took place in a predominately white Indiana city some 95 miles west of Chicago seven years ago. In 2012, Buttigieg fired South Bend’s Darryl Boykins, who was the first Black Police Chief in the city’s 147-year history. In 2011, Boykins’ communication director reviewed audio tapes that allegedly recorded racist remarks from four white officers, who also were accused of disparaging the police chief. Under pressure, Mayor Buttigieg sided with the white officers and fired Boykins after learning his police chief was being investigated by the FBI.
It was the first major crisis for Buttigieg, who at just 29 years old, was South Bend’s youngest mayor in that city’s history. The termination ruptured the young mayor’s relationship with the city’s Black community, which make up about 26 percent of South Bend 96,000 residents. Most of South Bend residents have moved on after the termination, but for Buttigieg, the story won’t go away.
An Indiana judge on Monday, April 22, ordered a trial to determine whether five secret cassette tapes that recorded the alleged racist remarks should be released to the public. St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Steven Hostetler decided that the South Bend Common Council’s legal attempts to obtain the tapes from the city have merit and a trial is needed.
The decision is part of a 8-year-old, $2 million legal battle to get a judge to release several audio tapes that may once and for all tell whether the firing of a Black police chief was justified at a time when race relations in the city was on the upswing. The trial decision will likely come as Buttigieg’s presidential hopes continue to blossom on the national stage. A negative verdict may prove damaging for Buttigieg, whose presidential aspirations may be seriously damaged if the tapes reveal that he fired a Black police chief for nothing.
It’s been a long journey for South Bend’s Black community and activists.
Since Boykins’ termination, South Bend’s Black community and a chorus of activists continue to call for the release of five cassette tapes that Buttigieg and the city won’t release to the public.
Buttigieg is the youngest presidential candidate. He is openly gay. He’s a former Navy officer, a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Harvard and Oxford Universities. Under his leadership, South Bend’s revived downtown is bustling with thriving businesses that have created 12,000 jobs over two terms. Buttigieg has rehabbed or demolished over 1,000 vacant buildings in South Bend. He speaks multiple languages. With $7.1 million in his campaign war chest, Buttigieg as a small town mayor is the fourth highest fundraiser out of 14 presidential candidates so far. This along with his political achievements is attracting glowing media coverage.
But in 2012, Buttigieg made headlines that did not make him look so good.
The story began in the South Bend Police Department in 2011. Because of crashes in the South Bend Police Department’s telephone recording system, Police Department Communications Director Karen DePaepe listened to some recordings to determine whether data loss had occurred.
While listening to some of the calls, DePaepe heard comments from Brian Young, the captain of the department’s investigative division, that “she found to be inappropriate,” according to federal court documents in 2015. Young said in court document his line was recorded without his knowledge because the officer who previously had his phone number had asked for the line to be logged.
According to court documents, DePaepe then told Boykins about the recordings and the police chief “decided to continue the recording practice to gather more information before making a decision on what to do.” Seven months later, according to court documents, Young found out his line was being recorded and asked for the recording to stop; nothing was done at that time. Two months later, Boykins asked DePaepe to “give him relevant recordings of Young’s line to keep them as evidence,” according to the court. The communications official then “made five audio cassette tapes for eight recordings that occurred between February 4, 2011, and July 15, 2011.”
When the officers learned that their telephone conversations were being recorded without their knowledge they informed the FBI, who investigated Boykins. The termination came a day before the Trayvon Martin protest. Some 100 police officers, council members and white clergy applauded Buttigieg’s decision to fire Boykins. But the racially-charged incident frustrated the city’s Black community, which has lagged behind the prosperity of a city whose economy has flourished under Buttigieg’s leadership. DePaepe was also terminated for her role in the incident.
After his termination, Boykins filed several lawsuits, claiming he was wrongfully terminated. He also sued the city for racial discrimination and won in 2013. That same year, the white officers sued the city for invasion of privacy and defamation. They won $500,000.
Today, South Bend’s Black community is still struggling to heal from the wounds left by Boykins’ termination. Buttigieg’s silence over the incident and refusal to release the audio tapes is making the recovery even more difficult. Few Blacks in the city have attended Buttigieg’s presidential rallies since he launched his campaign earlier this year. Most are lily white liberals who are excited to see Buttigieg make his historic run for the White House.
Buttigieg has been on television shows, including ABC’s The View. He talks about his vision for America and achievements as South Bend’s mayor, but Buttigieg has not talked about his termination of Boykins or the audio tapes that he says he cannot release because of federal and state wiretapping laws. But a U.S. District Attorney declined to bring federal charges against Boykins, saying he did nothing wrong. In a New York Times article, Buttigieg said he never listened to the tapes.
There is criticism that Buttigieg was too quick settle the multiple lawsuits to make the issue go away and that such hasty decisions only made matters worse for the young mayor.
In a political memoir released earlier this year, Buttigieg wrote that the police tapes’ case “affected my relationship with the African American community for years to come.”
Since Boykins’ termination, Buttigieg has appointed two white chiefs and implemented bias training for officers. However, only five percent of South Bend’s 160 officers are Black and five percent are Hispanic.