South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) has been working to increase his support among black voters since entering the 2020 presidential race. While popular with many voters, Buttigieg is polling at 6 percent among black likely voters in South Carolina, the primary state seen as a bellwether of a candidate’s support among African Americans, according to the Post and Courier’s June poll.
But amid concerns that he has failed to adequately address tensions between his city’s police department and black residents, Buttigieg has sought ways to better respond to the situation.
With his Douglass Plan, an 18-page policy proposal named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Buttigieg proposes solutions to a variety of concerns, including health-care inaccessibility and insufficient investment in historically black colleges and universities.
But what may be the most important element of the plan in his outreach to black voters overall is what it reveals about the mayor’s intention to tackle a topic of great concern to the black community: policing policies.
Last month, a white South Bend police officer fatally shot a black man, drawing national attention to Buttigieg’s mayoral record on managing the tense relationship between his police department and the city’s black residents. With the shooting occurring less than two weeks before the first Democratic debate, Buttigieg explained why he had been unsuccessful over two terms in increasing black representation on his city’s police force.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” he told debate moderators. “My community is in anguish . . . and I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. We are hurting.”
But it is not just South Bend that is hurting. Frustration with policing remains a concern for black Americans across the country. Most black adults — 84 percent — said blacks are generally treated less fairly than white people in dealings with police, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Attempting to show that he not only hears their concerns but is responding to them, Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan aims to “establish comprehensive measures to hold police accountable to their communities.” If elected president, he says, his administration will “increase the number of police departments that use body-worn cameras and develop a national analytics process for public safety processes and results.” Concerns about the absence of body cameras are frequently expressed by activists wanting to see law enforcement held accountable for its actions. The body camera that the South Bend officer was wearing did not record June’s deadly shooting.
Under the Douglass Plan, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would investigate “law enforcement agencies that have a pattern or practice of violating civil rights and the Constitution, including by racial profiling.” I previously wrote that in response to protests from black activists, President Barack Obama launched initiatives to improve the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. President Trump’s administration has not continued those programs. In fact, one of Jeff Sessions’s final actions as Trump’s attorney general further restricted the federal government’s ability to enforce changes at law enforcement agencies accused of abuse.
Another area of concern for blacks that the Douglass Plan speaks to is the breadth of justifications for an officer’s use of lethal force, including fear. Officers’ anxiety about their safety has frequently been a factor in not-guilty verdicts in police shooting cases. Buttigieg hopes to raise the standard. Under his plan, his administration “will promote legislation that raises the legal standard under which officers are justified to use lethal force and offer incentives for states and localities to adopt more restrictive policies.”
Just as Buttigieg was making gains with black voters (he was at zero percent in South Carolina in May), concerns about his commitment to police reforming have threatened to derail his progress with them. Pledging to respond to ongoing problems could persuade some black voters to give the young mayor a second glance, but his ability to handle South Bend’s policing problems will probably loom large over their perceptions of him.