By Christian Sheckler | South Bend Tribune
June 14, 2020
Caption: Emon White holds a sign during a protest for Eric Logan on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in front of the South Bend Police Station on Sample Street in South Bend.
George Floyd’s death under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee last month led to a wave of protests, a national reckoning over violence against African-Americans and calls for policing reforms.
If the moment feels like a repeat for South Bend, that’s because the city confronted a similar outcry almost exactly one year ago, after the controversial fatal shooting of a black man, Eric Logan, by a white police officer.
“We’ve been here before. We were just here a year ago,” said Jorden Giger, who leads South Bend’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. “Now, since the officer-involved murder of George Floyd, we’re seeing more enthusiasm around real, substantive change as it pertains to policing.”
But even though Logan’s shooting and its aftermath in some ways have already left an enduring mark on South Bend’s history, city officials have delivered little in the way of concrete police reforms in the year since, frustrating those calling for change.
The shooting forced former Mayor Pete Buttigieg to temporarily suspend his presidential campaign and confront a frayed relationship with the city’s black residents. The problem continued to nag his bid for the Democratic nomination, and he never gained ground with black voters.
Logan’s death also ushered in a new era of civil rights activism in South Bend, as younger leaders affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement emerged to pressure city officials for change.
Those activists have already forced their way into city policy decision-making. Just last week, the Common Council tabled a pay raise for police officers after protesters, latching on to the “defund the police” mantra, demonstrated outside the home of council President Tim Scott.
“Does the George Floyd murder reinforce the conversation that was started a year ago? I think so,” Scott said. “It’s going to be difficult to have some of these conversations, but we truly need to look at what we’re doing in policing and as a city.”
Still, many tangible changes have yet to materialize.
In the months after Logan’s death, the city held a series of meetings to gather public feedback on the police department’s policies and practices on the use of body cameras, the use of force and recruitment, which were all focal points after the shooting.
Community members asked for stricter use of body cameras, specific penalties for noncompliance, a greater focus on de-escalation to avoid the use of deadly force, testing and training on racial and cultural bias and a citizen review board to look into complaints against officers.
Clergy with the group Faith in Indiana have pressed for a “disciplinary matrix” that would set up clearer guidelines on the types of punishments for officers who commit misconduct.
So far, the city has made few changes to the police department’s policies based on the community feedback, and the new disciplinary guidelines, which were originally set to go to the city Board of Public Safety for approval in January, have been tabled for the last six months.
The city last year spent $180,000 to hire a prominent Chicago- based consulting firm, 21st Century Policing Solutions, or 21CP, to study the police department and report back with potential reforms. But although Buttigieg initially said he wanted recommendations on his desk before he left office, the city still has not announced the results of the study.
The struggle to recruit black police officers, a problem Buttigieg said he’d failed to solve last year, has seen marginal improvement, though the police department is still less diverse than the population it serves. At this time last year, 15 of the department’s 240 officers were black. Now the department has 18 black officers, accounting for 8% of the current force. South Bend’s population is 26% black.
“The Eric Logan shooting exposed to our community some areas of weakness concerning relationships between our community, our city administration and police,” said Gilbert Washington, pastor of St. Paul Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. “But appreciably, not much has changed with regard to policies and procedures.”
Mayor James Mueller, who took office in January, says he understands the frustration among some community members with the delays, but that he does not want to rush the potential reforms.
“The reform of our public safety systems is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said in an interview. “The previous administration had begun the study with 21CP, and we’re hopeful to get them to present their findings as soon as possible. They were looking at a lot of these issues, and we want to make sure we have that report before we move too fast.”
Logan was shot and killed June 16, 2019 — Father’s Day — during an encounter with Ryan O’Neill, who was a South Bend police sergeant at the time.
Police have said O’Neill responded around 3:30 a.m. to the parking lot of the Central High apartments at Colfax Avenue and William Street after reports of someone breaking into parked cars.
After O’Neill arrived, according to police, he saw Logan partially inside a parked car. When O’Neill called out to Logan, police said, Logan raised a hunting knife and approached the officer, ignoring orders to drop the knife. O’Neill fired twice, striking Logan once in the torso.
Logan’s shooting drew outrage in part because O’Neill did not activate his body camera, leaving the officer as the only witness, with no video evidence to support his version of the encounter.
O’Neill also had been investigated earlier in his career for accusations by two other police officers that he made racist comments. A police department spokesman last year said those complaints were “not sustained” after an internal affairs investigation.
The investigation of the shooting was turned over to a special prosecutor, who announced in March that O’Neill was justified in using deadly force because of the “threat and imminent danger” Logan posed while armed with the knife. The special prosecutor filed unrelated charges of ghost employment, official misconduct and public indecency, alleging O’Neill had paid a woman for a sex act while he was on duty a few weeks before Logan’s shooting.
O’Neill has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, which remain pending in St. Joseph Superior Court. He resigned from the police department in July 2019, amid an internal review of Logan’s shooting.
Logan’s mother, Shirley Newbill, declined an interview request through an attorney representing the family in a civil lawsuit against the city.
Waiting for reform
In the wake of Logan’s shooting, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski issued an order to the department’s officers clarifying that body cameras are to be activated during all work-related interactions with the public.
The department amended its policy in December to add requirements that supervisors conduct periodic reviews of officers’ body camera footage to verify proper usage. The department is also looking to add technology such as holster sensors to automatically activate cameras in more instances.
Mueller said the police department is still testing the technical improvements.
“There are trials in progress right now,” Mueller said, “and it would be nice if you could just flip the switch and these things would work, but we’ve encountered some challenges getting that to be reliable.”
Activists, meanwhile, have pushed for the city to spell out clear penalties for officers who violate the body camera policy.
The city did not grant a request for an interview with Ruszkowski, but a spokesman issued a written statement attributed to the chief on the status of police reforms.
“COVID-19 has certainly slowed things down and made things more difficult,” the statement said. “We are however in the final stages of the disciplinary matrix and 21CP recommendations, as well as draft revisions on our use-of-force policy.”
Faith in Indiana leaders who met with Mueller last week said they are disappointed the mayor has not moved swiftly on reforms such as the disciplinary guidelines, as almost a year has passed since Logan’s death and public safety reforms were a major part of the mayor’s platform.
“The mayor did not come with any concrete dates,” J.B. Williams, pastor at Abundant Faith Family Ministries, said after a meeting with Mueller on Thursday. “He hasn’t given us anything. We’ve been doing this since last year, the anniversary of Eric Logan’s death is June 16, and still there is no plan.”
At last week’s Common Council meeting, Scott also called on the mayor to lay out specific dates he expects to roll out various reforms.
Mueller said he expects to reveal a new draft of the disciplinary matrix in the “coming days,” with approval by the Board of Public Safety as early as the board’s July 15 meeting.
The mayor has yet to announce a definite timetable for the results of the 21CP report, which could help determine potential changes in the police department. Mueller said he has seen what he called a “draft” of the report, and that the city asked the firm to add an “implementation guide” for how the police department can act on the study’s findings and recommendations.
Some ideas, such as a citizen review board that would examine complaints against police officers, have come up repeatedly after past controversies, and have now been revived after George Floyd’s killing.
An ordinance proposed by Henry Davis Jr., Lori Hamman and Karen White would establish a civilian review board, modeled on a similar one in Indianapolis, that could investigate complaints separately from police internal affairs officers.
Sgt. Harvey Mills, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in South Bend, said officers are open to reforms including the discipline matrix, citizen review board and updates to policies on the use of force.
“We’re always welcoming of any input from the community,” he said. “We’re always open to finding other means than potentially taking someone’s life.”
Mills said no South Bend police officer is trained to use the type of neck restraint that contributed to George Floyd’s death, but he expects revisions to the department’s duty manual in the near future that will go further in explicitly banning such techniques.
Past controversies over policing in South Bend have come and gone without reforms, but activists say they won’t accept inaction this time.
“We are not going to let up,” said Williams, with Abundant Life Family Ministries. “We are encouraging the protesters to turn up the heat.”