Opinion says SBPD "tapes" can legally be released

A legal battle could be brewing to win the public release of recorded South Bend Police Department phone calls that were used to fire the chief and the communications director.

The South Bend Common Council now has a written legal opinion from outside legal counsel stating that it is perfectly legal to listen to the tapes.

“This one’s pretty black and white,” said E. Spencer Walton, with May, Oberfell, and Lorber. “I think it’s clear that what was happening here was perhaps inadvertent, but nevertheless, totally legal.”

So far, council leadership has requested a meeting with the mayor to discuss the matter.

In the past the mayor has publicly stated that he would be very interested to know what is on the tapes, but had yet to have any lawyer explain how he could do that in a way “that is legal.”

The mayor has yet to respond to the council’s invitation, and things could get interesting if that continues to be the case. “The statute allows the common council as the overseer of the city to ask for and actually subpoena the records, or the tapes in this instance. If the city then refuses, the statute then permits the common council to go to the circuit court an file a motion to compel the production of the tapes in this instance,” said Walton.

Walton says that the tapes themselves were sent off to Washington D.C. to the U.S. Department of Justice, but that the original digital recordings remain stored in the communications equipment of the South Bend Police Department.

Late Thursday, the council issued a written news release calling upon Mayor Pete Buttigieg to “open his door and sit down with us so that dialogue can take place.”

The release does not set a deadline for the mayor’s response.

“We think since it was obtained legally, it is property of the city, that there would be no possible reason why he shouldn’t listen to the tapes,” said Walton.

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