SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Mayor Pete Buttigieg remained in South Bend, Ind., on Tuesday to confront a local crisis involving the fatal shooting of a black resident by a white police officer, skipping scheduled campaign appearances in Hollywood.
The shooting of the 54-year-old robbery suspect under conditions that remain murky has presented Mr. Buttigieg, a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate, with a test of leadership playing out on the national stage only a week before the first primary debates. Court records show that the officer involved in the case has previously been accused of using racially charged language and excessive force against black suspects.
The case has revived scrutiny of Mr. Buttigieg’s history of sometimes strained relations with black residents in South Bend. The issue is echoing in the Democratic primary as Mr. Buttigieg, who is in his second term, seeks to improve his support among African-American voters.
At an economic forum in South Carolina over the weekend, Mr. Buttigieg unveiled a Marshall Plan-like effort to combat economic inequality in minority communities. He also acknowledged that he has struggled to win the backing of black voters, a gap apparent in polling. “We’re working very energetically, very actively, in order to invite more people and specifically black voters into this campaign,” he said.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Buttigieg had not made a public appearance since he spoke at a news conference on Sunday at City Hall, where he said, “We will continue to work as a city to make sure this is a safe community where everybody is treated fairly and everybody is able to thrive.’’
[Read about Pete Buttigieg’s complicated history with African-Americans and the police.]
For many black voters, issues of personal safety and policing are the most visceral way they perceive elected officials.
“How many people judge a mayor in the African-American community is how you handle your police department,” Oliver Davis, a black member of the South Bend City Council who has criticized Mr. Buttigieg, said Tuesday.
Mr. Davis said minority groups’ trust in South Bend police officers — only 10 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — was low. That mistrust has inflamed suspicions about the events that led to the shooting early Sunday morning, when an officer who chose not to activate his body camera shot and killed 54-year-old Eric J. Logan.
The officer, Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, is a 19-year veteran of the department. His personnel file shows only one minor disciplinary action, according to local media: a one-day suspension for driving his police car into a concrete pole in 2004.
But court records show Mr. O’Neill was twice sued in 2008 by black residents he had arrested. In one case, a man said Mr. O’Neill subdued him with a Taser while his hands were already raised, and then responded with a racial slur when the man asked Mr. O’Neill what he had done wrong.
Another man accused Mr. O’Neill of pummeling him on the back during an arrest for vandalism. The man said Mr. O’Neill and two other officers laughed “about how I was flipping like a fish while being tazed.”
Both suits, filed in federal court on forms provided to the jailed suspects, were dismissed when the men did not pay filing fees to continue.
A former South Bend police officer, David Newton, complained to superiors in 2008 that Mr. O’Neill had made derogatory remarks about interracial relationships and “black meat” to another officer. A spokesman for the South Bend Police Department, Ken Garcia, said Tuesday that an internal investigation found that Mr. Newton’s assertion was “not sustained.”
The police union did not respond to requests for comment from Mr. O’Neill.
According to authorities, Mr. O’Neill shot and killed Mr. Logan while responding to a report of someone breaking into cars downtown. Mr. O’Neill responded without using his lights and sirens, which would automatically have triggered his body camera. Nor did Mr. O’Neill turn on the camera manually when he exited the police car. Mr. O’Neill shot Mr. Logan once in the abdomen after he refused to drop a knife when Mr. O’Neill ordered him to do so, authorities said.
“Guy threw a knife at me,” Mr. O’Neill said over the police scanner.
There have been few signs of widespread public protest in South Bend. At a vigil Monday night, Mr. Logan’s family members and other residents questioned the police version of his death.
The Police Department’s homicide division is investigating to determine if charges are warranted against Mr. O’Neill. There will also be an inquiry into whether the officer violated department procedures.
Under Mr. Buttigieg, South Bend has added body cameras and implemented bias training for officers, among other measures designed to increase community trust of the police.
The efforts stem from Mr. Buttigieg’s firing of the city’s first black police chief in 2012, which Mr. Buttigieg has acknowledged has created a yearslong rift with African-Americans in South Bend.
Mr. Buttigieg fired the chief for mishandling tape recordings of police officers’ phone calls. For years, there have been lawsuits over making the police tapes public, a case still tied up in court.
“For seven years there has been a concern there is a, quote, cancer within our police department,” said Mr. Davis, who has led the City Council’s effort to gain access to the tapes. “The issue of trust is huge here.’’