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St. Joseph County, Indiana Prosecutor Ken Cotter says there is no body cam video of the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer in South Bend, the city where Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is mayor. (June 18) AP, AP

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Pete Buttigieg is facing a pivotal moment in his campaign as he returns to South Bend after a police officer fatally shot a black man allegedly wielding a knife, just as the presidential hopeful has been trying to bridge a gap with voters of color.

Buttigieg has shown he's taking the incident seriously by suspending his campaign and meeting with community members, said Shayla Nunnally, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut and president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

"I think his noting this is a very important issue that requires his undivided attention was a start," she said. "I think by having him listening, reaching out to community members and understanding their perspective, again provides those signals that at least can start the process of the African American community feeling as if he is listening to comprehend, not listening for the optics, but listening to comprehend." 

After initially struggling, Buttigieg may be gaining traction with voters of color, important segments of the Democratic base, according to a recent poll in South Carolina.  He has had a sometimes-bumpy relationship with African Americans in South Bend, where he demoted the city’s first black police chief and demolished hundreds of dilapidated homes in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

He's also expressed regret for using the phrase "all lives matter" in a 2015 speech, explaining he didn't realize it's often used as a counter to "Black Lives Matter."

Buttigieg returned to South Bend after receiving news of early Sunday morning's police shooting,canceling a fundraiser in New York among other events.

He explained he's learned from past missteps that it's important to speak to the community, even when he doesn't have all of the details, to be transparent about the state of the investigation.

Under pressure: Pete Buttigieg cancels campaign events after fatal South Bend police-involved shooting

"One of the reasons we're communicating upfront right now is because of lessons learned from members of the community," Buttigieg said at the news conference in South Bend late Sunday night. "We've had prior cases of use of force incidents and officer-involved shootings where I hesitated, frankly, to get in front of cameras because we didn't know very much, and it was out of our hands. But what I was told by people in the community is that it is important to open channels of communication to try to be clear on where the city is, even if we don't find ourselves in a position to be able to say or do much right away."

Buttigieg sounds sincere, but there's more to it than listening and talking to African Americans, said Joseph Tucker Edmonds, an assistant professor of Africana and religious studies at Indiana University at Indianapolis.

"Just going back and listening to the community's concerns is not going to set him apart from any other midsized city's mayor or any other candidates in the field," he said, "unless there is some creative and deliberative policy move that emerges from this. That is going to be the real tell." 

The investigation is ongoing 

The details of Sunday's police shooting still are emerging. Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who is white, says he found Eric J. Logan rooting through a car after 3 a.m. in an apartment complex after hearing reports of someone vandalizing vehicles in the area. O'Neill says he shot Logan because he was wielding a knife, advancing toward the officer and refused orders to drop the weapon. Logan later died at an area hospital.

At this point, the officer's account is the only one to emerge. Police say the officer had not activated his body camera. No witnesses have come forward.

Family members of the shooting victimare demanding answers, telling local media the incident sounds out of character for Logan. They say he has no history of theft and wouldn't attack an armed officer with a knife, according to the South Bend Tribune. They also wonder why he was transported to the hospital in a police cruiser rather than an ambulance. 

The officer is on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure for officer-involved shootings at many police departments, including in South Bend. 

Late Tuesday, Buttigieg directed the police department to require officers to activate their body cameras during any on-duty interactions with civilians. 

"For years, our community has been working to strengthen trust between residents and officers through community engagement, technologies like body-worn cameras, transparency with police information, and other measures" he said in a prepared statement. "This work must continue with more urgency than ever as we move forward together in the wake of the hurt caused by what took place on Sunday.”

Buttigieg is waiting for the facts

Leaders often are criticized for jumping to conclusions before they have all of the facts, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, something Buttigieg so far has avoided. The mayor has refrained from making any conclusive judgment about what happened, saying he would let the police investigation run its course.

"The language he has used so far has been thoughtful," Downs said. "He hasn't passed judgment before he has received information." 

Downs said this will be an important moment in Buttigieg's campaign and it could be a tricky situation to manage. 

"Certainly in the environment today, there are people who think that police officers are being exonerated when they should not be," Downs said. "And there also are people who think police officers do not receive enough support for the dangerous work they do."

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Buttigieg back in South Bend after police shooting AP, AP

At Sunday night's news conference, Buttigieg laid out details of how the police would handle the investigation and explained that the citizen-led Board of Public Safety handles officer discipline, if its merited.

"I know that whenever an incident like this happens there is tremendous hurt that can come about," Buttigieg said at the news conference, flanked by the City Council president and police chief. "We will be striving to reach out to community members and to community leaders to keep channels of communication open even as we wait for more facts to come in."

Buttigieg acknowledged he's worked to strengthen his relationship with people of color in South Bend. 

"I think it’s precisely at moments like this when the community comes under strain that that work is important, that we build the kind of dialogue and the kind of trust in quiet times so that when there is a difficult moment, we can come together and face that difficult moment with our shared values."

City officials said the mayor met with Logan's family. It's unclear what was said.

It is clear voters will be watching how the mayor continues to handle the situation. 

"This is of major concern for African Americans, and should be for all Americans, that people are treated fairly by the police," Nunnally said, "and there still is the conversation about what this means for law enforcement everywhere."

As a mayor, police shootings are a potentially unique part of Buttigieg's job compared to the rest of the Democratic field. Nunnally said it's likely he'll be questioned about the incident during next week's Democratic debate. 

"He's in a role where he has to be making decisions at this moment," she said. "The other candidates are looking at this from a different vantage point, just by way of their particular office, such as being a senator." 

Buttigieg has faced challenges in South Bend

Buttigieg has a mixed record with people of color in South Bend, which with a population roughly 54 percent white, 26 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic, is among the state's most diverse cities. 

He faced questions his first year in office after demoting the city's popular, first African American police chief, Darryl Boykins, over his handling of an illegal police phone-tapping incident that drew the attention of federal authorities. Boykins, who has denied wrongdoing, eventually sued and settled with the city out of court, with neither side admitting fault.

Buttigieg also started a program to demolish 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. Community advocates in poorer, often African American or Hispanic neighborhoods soon began to complain that the city was being too aggressive in levying fines on property owners, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, and demolishing buildings over code enforcement issues. Years into the program, however, many credited Buttigieg with listening to their concerns and altering course to help qualified property owners fix, instead of lose, their houses.

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As South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg nears the end of 8 years in office and looks ahead to a presidential run, residents and council members reflect on his impact. Jenna Watson, jenna.watson@indystar.com

Video also surfaced of Buttigieg using the phrase "all lives matter" during a speech in 2015 at a local high school.

“I was talking about a lot of issues around racial reconciliation in our community,” Buttigieg said in comments two months ago reported by The New York Times. “What I did not understand at that time, was that phrase, just early into mid-2015, was coming to be viewed as a sort of counter-slogan to Black Lives Matter. And so, this statement, that seems very anodyne and something that nobody could be against, actually wound up being used to devalue what the Black Lives Matter movement was telling us.”

Buttigieg tries to reach minority voters

Buttigieg has been trying to bolster his relationship with people of color on the campaign trail, too, acknowledging he has work to do.

His support among black voters in South Carolina, for instance, has been ticking upward after he recently polled at near zero percent. And at campaign stops early in the race, the crowds that come to listen to him have been predominantly white.

In the past few weeks, he's been reaching out to community leaders and been detailing how he would help black and Hispanic voters, including bolstering entrepreneurship, improving access to education, reforming criminal justice and fighting voter suppression. 

In a prescient interview June 7 with BET, he said transparency is crucial whenever police use force. He said South Bend's five-member public safety board has an African American majority. He also noted the police department itself needs to be diverse, as with any workforce.

"Policing really represents the beginning of somebody’s encounter with a system that has a lot of systemic racism," he told BET, "not just historically but if you just look at things like sentencing disparities, we know these biases are alive and well and happening right now. If we get that right, even things that aren’t police issues like mandatory minimums or walking away from incarcerations of drug possessions, it does filter back into policing."

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Pete Buttigieg, a two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is now running for president at the age of 37. Here's what we know about the man and his campaign. Dwight Adams, dwight.adams@indystar.com

Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.

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