Mayor Pete’s Police Chief Pick Clashed With Common Council

Buttigieg doubled down when officials and officers called for chief’s resignation

Pete Buttigieg / Getty Images
June 21, 2019

It was the winter of 2012, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg was having trouble with his police department.

When he took office as the youngest-ever mayor of South Bend, Ind., at the beginning of the year, Buttigieg vowed to transform the rust belt city with "data-driven decision making." But so far, his biggest splash has been a racially charged battle over his firing of the popular black police chief Darryl Boykins. That scandal, coupled with an ongoing gun violence plague, led Buttigieg to decide he needed to search outside South Bend for a chief to permanently replace Boykins and "modernize the police department."

Buttigieg reviewed more than 60 candidates before he found his man: Ron Teachman, former police chief of New Bedford, Mass., who had most recently worked as a law-enforcement consultant in Tajikistan. Teachman had never visited South Bend before his interview with Buttigieg, but the mayor was confident the 58-year-old’s 34 years of service would encourage the SBPD to recover from the ongoing turmoil. He praised Teachman’s long résumé, saying that his leadership would "cultivate the next generation of leaders to rise through the ranks," according to the South Bend Tribune.

But Teachman came with some baggage. During his time in New Bedford, he had frequently clashed with the city council over matters of transparency and—by his own admission—had a tendency to become "authoritarian" if anyone attempted to interfere with his will.

"Some points you don’t move off of," he told the Tribune. "You may not satisfy everyone’s concerns."

Some members of South Bend’s Common Council expressed concerns about Teachman’s past, especially his decision to lay off 31 officers from New Bedford’s force of about 300 amid budget cuts. Common Council president Derek Dieter asked that the body be allowed to review Teachman’s application. Buttigieg refused.

"There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be a great person to work with," the mayor told the Tribune.

And Teachman was equally enthusiastic about working with Buttigieg.

"What sealed the deal, quite frankly, was spending the day with the mayor and his staff. And I mean that sincerely," he said. "I just went home totally energized, hoping that this would work out, that I’d get the opportunity to come and serve and continue to practice my craft."

Teachman took up his position in January of 2013, the first SBPD chief to hail from outside the city since the 1930s. Shortly after his inauguration, Teachman said that, in his view, South Bend was a sick patient and he was a doctor, coming from the East Coast "to look, listen, and learn."

"Usually when a city looks to the outside there are indications that there are problems internally," he told WSBT, adding that when New Bedford brought a police chief in from the outside in the late 1990s, he had privately judged it as a mark of poor leadership on the part of the mayoral administration at the time.

When asked what he planned to reform now that he was in a similar position, Teachman was vague: "Everything is on the table," he told WSBT.

One of his first reforms was an anti-violence commission, which Buttigieg announced at his 2013 State of the City speech and spearheaded alongside Teachman. It aimed to reduce the numbers of shootings in South Bend by increasing the severity of policing on the worst offenders and by using the community-based "call-in" method on minor offenders. The commission was released to much fanfare, with both Teachman and Buttigieg speaking at its first meeting in April.

"Everyone—from police to parents, from teachers to elected officials—has a role to play in making young lives better and making our community safer," Buttigieg said at the time.

But soon Teachman found himself embroiled in his own scandal. During a May 2013 meeting of the Common Council, local civil rights activist Greg Brown told the body that Teachman had failed to assist black officer Dave Newton as he broke up a fight outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center on April 22. Common Council then asked the Board of Public Safety to investigate the incident. BPS president Patrick Cottrell turned over the request to the Indiana State Police, citing the need for a nonbiased source.

For his part, Teachman told the Tribune that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

The ISP concluded its investigation in September, and Buttigieg reviewed it in a private session with the BPS. Citing the mayor's promise for more transparency in his administration, Common Council petitioned that it too might be allowed to look at the report. Buttigieg refused.

After reviewing the report on Teachman, Buttigieg decided not to discipline the chief. The decision so angered Cottrell that he stormed out of a meeting with the mayor.

When asked by nearby reporters if he thought Buttigieg had made a just decision, he became curt. "No," he said.

When pressed as to why, he said, "because it's not the right decision."

Cottrell resigned in disgust two hours later.

"I told the mayor this morning face to face that he had a decision to make with regard to this case with Chief Teachman, and he made the wrong decision," Cottrell said in a statement. "And because of that I’ve lost respect for him as the mayor and can no longer serve on the board appointed by him."

Buttigieg replied in a statement saying that he would replace Cottrell with someone who "agrees with my vision for the city." Later that day, Buttigieg said that he would not release the report, as he believed it was a private matter for the mayor’s office.

"There was a fight, an officer resolved it and it did not rise to the level of any discipline," Buttigieg told the Tribune. "There are expectations about backing up a fellow officer requesting help, and there’s no indication that that provision was not respected."

But members of South Bend’s black community—already distrustful of Buttigieg because of his handling of the Boykins affair—would not let this incident disappear. Newton, the black officer in question, wrote a letter to the Common Council in early October, deriding Buttigieg for failing to take action.

"I can no longer sit by and watch the flip characterization by Mayor Buttigieg that this incident was 'a molehill being made a mountain,'" Newton wrote of the mayor's refusal to release the report. "This statement shows that the mayor has no idea the danger we face daily."

Dieter supported Newton at an October Common Council meeting.

"When you have the president of the board of safety quit, that's a red flag that something must be in there," he told the Tribune. "If the mayor says there’s nothing in there, he should have released it."

Cottrell also spoke out against Buttigieg’s leadership, telling Common Council in a late October meeting that they should request that Buttigieg ask for Teachman’s resignation.

"The mayor based his decision on politics," Cottrell said. "You see, to do what two board of safety members recommended, to ask for Chief Teachman's resignation, would be to admit he—our mayor—had made a mistake in hiring this man. Who is unfit, in my opinion, to serve as chief."

A later investigation by the Tribune showed that behind the public fights, Buttigieg had been exchanging emails with Teachman, insisting that the chief follow his lead to protect the mayor’s own image.

"Just wanted to send a word of encouragement—I know that you will not let the nonsense aired in Council distract you from your great work," Buttigieg wrote in a June 11 email, adding, "We will monitor the political side and try to keep it off your back, and any time a legitimate issue emerges we can work through it together."

The same day the mayor cleared Teachman of wrongdoing, Buttigieg sent the chief an email of his statement, telling Teachman to take note that this was the story he would be using in public.

"Want you to see how I will be talking about the issue in the press," Buttigieg wrote. "To avoid any confusion, this is the only account of events at the King Center that I plan to use on the record."

Newton and Dieter also exchanged emails, with Dieter telling Newton that if he told his side of the story in public, he would not have to fear discipline from Teachman in the department.

When Buttigieg deployed to Afghanistan in early 2014, animus against Teachman ramped up, with four officers calling for his ouster, claiming he had created new positions in the department without procedural approval, and had not allowed minorities to apply for them.

Teachman eventually resigned in 2015 and was replaced with third-generation South Bend police officer Scott Ruszkowski. Buttigieg maintained that Teachman's tenure had been a success.

"Under his leadership our department has moved forward toward a new level of professionalism, modernization, and effectiveness," the mayor said at the press conference where Teachman stepped down. "Information-sharing between departments, effective use of technology, and management practices have continued to make major progress."

The mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.