SOUTH BEND –  South Bend police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill was proud that in 19 years as a cop he never shot anyone – never once fired a shot in the line of duty – even though mostly working in the late night when violence peaks.

Until . . .

O’Neill is the cop in national news, caught up in coverage of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. He shot and fatally wounded Eric Logan, a man said by O’Neill to have forced him finally to shoot someone in a him-or-me, life-or-death situation in which Logan approached threateningly with a raised knife.

White cop shoots and kills black man. That’s how it played. And that’s what happened.

But it wasn’t like one of those cases elsewhere where some white cop fires a barrage of shots into the back of a black man who is running away. O’Neill fired two shots. One hit Logan – in the stomach, not in the back. Police reports say Logan, after being shot, threw a knife that struck O’Neill with a glancing blow.

Still, was it justified?

And how has Mayor Buttigieg handled the situation? The mayor handled it well in the Democratic debate, as well as he could, admitting problems in failing to recruit black police officers, expressing sympathy over the death but not declaring a verdict on the shooting. He didn’t fold as a result of his city, about which he boasts, being portrayed now as a mess of racial strife. Buttigieg moves on, still a strong contender, although still struggling to win support among African-American voters, especially in South Carolina, with its key early primary.

Whether the shooting was justified will be looked at by a special prosecutor from another county. There also will be a civil suit.

It’s possible to piece together some of the story from statements by police and the prosecutor.

Some of the information raises more questions. Especially: Did the city have an unclear policy on when an officer was to turn on a body camera? And was limited use encouraged to save money? O’Neill didn’t turn on his body camera as he got out of his patrol car. Did he have reason to believe his investigation of car break-ins would lead to the first time in 19 years that he would shoot someone?

A regulation change now orders officers to turn the camera on in “all enforcement and investigative contacts.” Belated.

If that had been the clear rule for investigating whether the man in the parking lot owned the car or was breaking into it, would video have shown an attacker with knife raised? Or not?

I know O’Neill well.

He is one of the South Bend police officers who have taken students in my Notre Dame journalism class along on patrol, with department approval. Their written assignments gave a positive portrayal of O’Neill. I have talked with him many times about policing, including his stated belief that all his gym work and running enabled him to subdue many a violator without need to use his gun.

I didn’t see the shooting. Only two people knew the facts at the precise moment. One is dead. But, as the nation speculates, I tend to believe the cop that I know shot to save his own life and be there still for his wife and children.

But I also understand there is skepticism among many blacks. Why wouldn’t there be? After all of those stories about racist cops in shootings elsewhere, why wouldn’t they be suspicious?

While I know O’Neill, they don’t. And some of them have had bad experiences with police.

For want of video, no matter what the reason, whether flawed policy or not, the chance for proof that could convince so many people, either way, was lost. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics for the South Bend Tribune over the last five decades.