Indiana Police Department's 'Breathe Easy' T-Shirt Controversy Resurfaces Amid George Floyd Protests

Controversy concerning Indiana's South Bend Police Department and Mayor Pete Buttigieg has resurfaced amid ongoing protests against police violence around the country. Some are remembering — or learning for the first time — that officers in South Bend came under criticism for appearing to trivialize the death of Eric Garner back in 2014. As Buttigieg speaks out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists are reminding each other of how he initially responded to this controversy at the time.

In 2014, Eric Garner was killed during an encounter with the New York City Police Department, with video from the scene showing him pleading "I can't breathe!" as an officer choked him. The phrase became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, and later that year, the Notre Dame women's basketball team wore t-shirts that read "I can't breathe" to a game in the northern Indiana city. A police officer in the neighboring town of Mishawaka printed similar shirts which read: "Breathe easy. Don't break the law." Many took it as an insult to Garner and the players, and as a dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement altogether.

Even then, the tension between activists and police seemed strong, though Notre Dame players said that it did not need to be as long as police acknowledged the simple truth that "black lives matter" as much as any others. Forward Taya Reimer told reporters from ESPN at the time, "It's not an anti-law enforcement, anti-anything message. It's just showing condolences for the family, just supporting them."

According to a report by the South Bend Tribune, there is no evidence that South Bend police bought or wore the shirts, though they did do business with South Bend Uniform, the store that printed and sold the shirts. They were dreamed up by the store's owner, Jason Barthel, an officer from Mishawaka PD. Still, given other controversies concerning the South Bend Police Department's handling of racial issues, including video taken during an arrest in which SBPD officers can be heard quoting a scene from Django Unchained featuring Ku Klux Klan members struggling to see out of poorly crafted masks, critics claim police should have come out against the shirts more strongly.

Many said the same about Buttigieg, who has been criticized for his handling of race issues in many respects as well. Buttigieg avoided both condoning or condemning the "Breathe Easy" shirts, resulting in people on both sides of the issue being angry at him.

Still, as the shirts resurface in the public discourse this week, many are incorrectly claiming Buttigieg or the South Bend police wore them or endorsed them, which is not true. While these officials are being criticized for their neutrality on the topic, others are saying they deserve more criticism for other actions, such as Buttigieg's firing of the department's first African American police chief. At the time, Chief Darryl Boykins improperly recorded white officers making racist statements about him and other officers. Rather than reprimanding those cops, Buttigieg fired Boykins and refused to release his tapes.

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Similar incidents plague Buttigeig and South Bend's police department, like the rehiring of SBPD police officer, Aaron Knepper who committed multiple misconducts over the years, starting with a mentally disabled clerk in 2012; beating an elderly man in 2014; and an altercation with Notre Dame football player Devin Butler in 2016, which prompted protests. The Tribune published a relatively complete timeline of these events, including Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who captured national attention after he shot and killed 54-year-old black male, Eric Logan while responding to a call of someone breaking into vehicles downtown.

Per ABC News, O'Neill did not activate his body camera during the incident, sparking questions and anger among residents, and leading the city administration to update the South Bend Police Department's policy on the use of cameras. O'Neill was not charged but is still facing unrelated felony charges. The department is now being examined more closely considering Buttigieg's recent bid for the presidency and the nation's ongoing crisis of police violence in light of George Floyd protests.