Mayor Pete's 'First Serious Mistake'

Buttigieg faced backlash for firing first black man to head South Bend police force

Pete Buttigeig / Getty Images
April 3, 2019

Shortly after South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg took office in 2012, he made what he calls his "first serious mistake as mayor."

Federal investigators informed the 29-year-old mayor in January 2012 that they were investigating South Bend police chief Darryl Boykins in a possible wiretapping scandal. Boykins had served in the police force since 1984 and in 2007 had become the first black man in South Bend to head the force. Furthermore, he was a well-respected figure in the community, described by his predecessor, Police Chief Thomas Fautz, as a man who "is fair and professional, and strongly believes in accountability." Buttigieg kept the FBI information to himself.

But two months later, Buttigieg decided to ask for Boykins's resignation, which the police chief promptly turned in.

"I respect Chief Boykins's decision to resign," the mayor said in the statement released to the public, "and am grateful for his years of dedicated service to our community."

The backlash was immediate. South Bend Common Council members expressed dissatisfaction at Buttigieg's management style, wondering aloud why the mayor had not informed them before going public with his announcement.

"To learn that Mayor Pete Buttigieg has known about a federal investigation taking place within the South Bend Police Department since January 2012 is truly disturbing, especially since ... [the mayor] did not inform anyone on the South Bend Common Council about the investigation," council member Oliver Davis told the South Bend Tribune. "This shows a tremendous lack of respect and poor communication between the city’s administration and the South Bend Common Council."

The next day, Boykins spoke out through angry tears at the "1 Million Hoodie March" honoring Trayvon Martin in front of South Bend’s Martin Luther King Recreation Center.

"I'm going to do what I can with my attorney and fight as hard as I can to clear my name," Boykins told a supportive crowd, according to a report from CBS 22 WSBT.

As he walked with marchers later that day, Boykins caught Buttigieg's eye, but neither man approached each other or attempted to speak to the other. Later, members of the black community told the South Bend Tribune that Buttigieg had not acted with respect for their leaders.

"I walked the streets of South Bend for this mayor because I truly believed he would change things," Tommy Moore, a city resident, said. "Right now, I'm not very happy with how he handled this matter."

That evening, bolstered by community discontent with the mayor, Boykins rescinded his resignation, but Buttigieg refused, and instead demoted him to captain.

In the days following, the details of Boykins’s alleged wiretap emerged. In 2011, police communications director Karen DePaepe noticed she had been recording officers’ phone lines, capturing conversations between Tim Corbett, Dave Wells, and Steve Richmond, along with Capt. Brian Young and his wife Sandy. DePaepe listened to some of the recordings and claimed she heard racist banter about Boykins in some of the conversations. She then reported this to Boykins, who in turn castigated his officers for what they had thought were private remarks. These officers complained to the FBI, who began an investigation as early as the spring of 2011. When Buttigieg asked for Boykins’s resignation, neither man had heard the tapes—and Buttigieg refused to do so, fearing it might be illegal or an infringement on a federal investigation.   

On April 2, seven of the nine Common Council members signed a petition asking that Buttigieg reconsider Boykins as chief. Buttigieg responded in a statement.

"The people of South Bend elected me to make these decisions, and I believe I am doing what is best for the police department and the community as a whole," he said. "I understand this is a painful and difficult outcome for many people, and we all must work extra hard to ensure that there is time for listening, healing, and dialogue as we move forward."

Buttigieg remained silent afterwards, and, as more accusations of racism against Boykins's subordinates surfaced, the Common Council convened a meeting on April 10 to demand that Buttigieg release the mystery tapes and clear the air.

"We have to make sure we keep the mayor's feet to the fire and get him to answer the questions we all deserve," Davis said.

But Buttigieg's feet were nowhere near any fire—he skipped the meeting to watch the South Bend Silver Hawks' baseball season opener. That same day, the mayor's office fired DePaepe without explanation.

The situation began to attract outside attention, and, in May, members of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition began campaigning in South Bend for Buttigieg’s impeachment if he did not release the tapes, which could definitively prove whether or not Boykins had been the victim of racism. Community activist Mario Sims told ABC57 that the black community had enlisted Jackson’s organization to keep the mayor’s office from burying the possibility of listening to the tapes.

"We haven't been able to get a clear understanding, other than what Mrs. DePaepe has said is on those tapes, what is on those tapes," Sims said.  "Now we have the opportunity to have the tapes aired, to have the federal government determine if there is criminal activity that warrants prosecution."

Buttigieg was able to talk Rainbow PUSH out of the calls for impeachment by promising to ask the federal government to see if the tapes could be released, but he was not able to stem the tide of lawsuits in the coming months. By September, the officers DePaepe had recorded sued the city, Boykins, and DePaepe for defamation and accusations of racism. Boykins filed a countersuit, alleging that he was a victim of racism.

In early 2013, the FBI said it had ended its investigation of Boykins, not finding his recordings to be out of compliance with federal wiretapping laws. Boykins then filed a suit against Buttigieg and his chief of staff Mike Schmuhl, alleging the two had conspired to demote him with "racial animus." DePaepe also sued Buttigieg and the city, claiming that the mayor’s abrupt decision to fire her had been a wrongful termination.

The city of South Bend settled with all parties surrounding the controversy in December 2013 to the tune of $575,000.

But Buttigieg's troubles did not end there. The scandal has continued to dog his administration throughout his two terms as mayor. The allegedly racist tapes still have not been released, and both sides fault the city for never resolving the issue. At a meeting where the officers spoke publicly about the incident for the first time, Wells said that because of the scandal, he often sees an atmosphere of hostility between white police officers and South Bend’s black residents.

"And all this does is stir up the pot," Wells said at a February 2015 Common Council meeting, according to the South Bend Tribune.

As of September 2018, the city has spent nearly $2 million in resolving the fiasco, according to the South Bend Tribune.