Portland police killed a homeless man. Now the city faces tough questions
The killing of Robert Douglas Delgado last week came after months of protests against police violence in the city The killing of Robert Delgado has posed new questions about the relationship between law enforcement and the city’s homeless population. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images Police in Portland this week released an audio recording documenting the conversation between officers and dispatchers immediately before and after the fatal shooting of a homeless man in a city park on Friday. The recording includes the initial report that a man, later identified as 46-year-old Robert Douglas Delgado, was brandishing a handgun in Lents Park, deep in the Oregon city’s south-east quadrant. It documents erratic behavior on Delgado’s part, suggesting the mental health crisis that he was later reported to be in. And it also prominently features the commentary of Zachary Delong, a long-serving officer and combat veteran who killed Delgado with a single shot. But it leaves many questions about the shooting unanswered, and does not include any indication that Delgado was brandishing his gun – which turned out to be a harmless replica – at the time that Delong fired on him from a distance of 90ft, according to police. A video of the incident, recorded by a local resident and first published by the Willamette Week, does not much clarify that issue, though it does capture police barking orders at Delgado before firing off multiple shots. Portland riot officers respond to a protest after police shot and killed Robert Douglas Delgado, 46. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images Public records show that Delgado had a long series of interactions with police stretching back to 1992, and convictions for crimes including assault, driving offenses, and drug possession. He had no recorded permanent address after 2017. His sister, Paulette Martin, told local reporters that her brother had a “rough life”, struggling with mental illness and substance abuse issues for years, and that he was “always scared” of police, who she said “never helped him”. Delong, meanwhile, had been repeatedly celebrated by the Portland police bureau (PPB). In 2016, the bureau posted a link to a History Channel documentary that detailed the officer’s role while serving as a US army ranger in a 2010 engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The previous year, PPB awarded Delong a Life Saving medal, which bureau directives describe as being “awarded to any sworn or non-sworn bureau member or community member who saved the life of another person”. Photo collage Delong has been placed on administrative leave, and the shooting is under internal administrative investigation. Asked about the timeline for the administrative investigation of the shooting, PPB directed the Guardian to a press release, which did not specify a timetable. A year of protests Friday’s killing has posed new questions about the relationship between law enforcement and the city’s homeless population, whose numbers have swelled, and whose presence has become more visible during the pandemic. After a brief pause in the Covid spring of 2020, city authorities have resumed using PPB in sweeps of their encampments, a tactic that has been criticized by homeless advocates in a city that has seen historically black neighborhoods gentrified, sharp increases in housing costs, and a dearth of construction of affordable housing. So far in the city’s streets, the response to Delgado’s death has been curiously muted when compared with the height of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Portland has been convulsed over the past year by hundreds of night-time protests against police brutality, which have themselves – according to protesters, human rights groups and legal complaints – been subject to more heavy-handed policing from local and federal agencies. At their peak, last summer’s protests drew thousands into city streets, and set up weeks of direct confrontation between protesters on the one hand, and PPB officers, Multnomah county sheriff’s deputies, and a variety of federal agents on the other. While the largest protests were peaceful, for weeks, police and large crowds of demonstrators faced off across a fence erected to protect the Multnomah county justice center, which houses the courts and jail, and which was set ablaze by protesters early in the cycle of George Floyd protests. Protesters march along the Hawthorne Bridge after the police shooting of Robert Delgado. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images As the year, and the protests, wore on, Portland became a central focus for conservative media, mugshot-tweeting social media propagandists, and, eventually, the Trump administration, as the former president himself called out city authorities and dispatched additional agents to the city over the objections of Oregon’s governor, and attempted to shift the national conversation from his handling of the Covid crisis to “law and order”. While each night since the killing has seen anti-police protests, they have been on a far smaller scale. On Tuesday night, after the Derek Chauvin verdict was delivered, expectations from Portland city authorities had been such that Mayor Ted Wheeler pre-emptively declared a state of emergency, allowing the imposition of a curfew and street closures in the event of unrest. Although protesters downtown broke storefront windows, and one demonstrator punched a police officer and was in turn beaten by police, the crowd numbered no more than 60. The relatively low numbers are in keeping with other recent protests, and the longer term trend in 2021. On Sunday night, a group of about 70 people gathered outside PPB’s east precinct, where Delong was stationed before being placed on administrative leave. Police say that the crowd attempted to roll dumpsters towards the precinct in order to set them, and the building, on fire, but police intervened and the crowd was dispersed without arrests. On Monday night, a few dozen people, including some in so-called “black bloc” attire – black clothing and masks associated with militant anarchist protesters – gathered in a park in the historically African-American Woodlawn neighborhood. They marched around surrounding streets, smashing windows of buildings belonging to a youth club, a bank, and at a restaurant belonging to chicken chain, Popeye’s. That night, city residents were ready to express frustration at their actions. Lady Leo, an African-American woman who lives near the restaurant, told Sergio Olmos, a reporter for local public radio, that the protesters were “tearing down our community and teaching our kids wrong”. Protesters lit a portable bathroom on fire in downtown Portland, 16 April 2021. Photograph: Dave Killen/AP Along with some evidence of a souring view of the protesters in the community, there was more stark proof that the relationship between protesters and press covering the events has deteriorated. On Friday night, Justin Yau, a freelance journalist who has been in the streets for months covering the protests, was knocked to the ground, beaten and had his eyeglasses broken. That incident came after months of what Society of Professional Journalists Oregon president, April Erlich, called in a statement “escalating anti-press rhetoric from protesters and physical attacks on journalists in Oregon by both police and protesters”. Across the last half-decade, the warmer months in Portland have seen a ramping up of confrontational protests, in which leftists have faced off against far-right groups and police. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, members of Delgado’s family called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the circumstances of his death. Simultaneously, Portland’s mayor, Wheeler, announced the extension of the state of emergency through this weekend, and encouraged residents to report the number plates of vehicles carrying people dressed in black. It remains to be seen whether the response to the killing of Robert Delgado signals the end of the city’s contentious Trump-era street politics, or just a springtime pause.