The Oregon Department of Justice and the Multnomah County District Attorneys Office announced a “partnership between both offices to investigate the death of Robert Douglas Delgado,” the man shot and killed by a Portland police officer April 16 amid what appeared to be a mental health crisis.
Under the agreement, a deputy attorney general from the state’s Justice Department will work jointly with two county prosecutors assigned to the case.
In the days following Delgado’s killing, family and members of the mental health community have called on Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt to have the state participate in the investigation, either by involving the Justice Department or through a special prosecutor appointed to the case.
The case is currently being investigated by Portland Police Bureau detectives, the agency’s standard practice following fatal shootings. The state’s Justice Department regularly works with small and rural counties where there are fewer prosecutors.
“It’s a departure from how these prosecutions are normally conducted in Multnomah County and I think that’s significant,” said J. Ashlee Albies, one of the attorneys for the Delgado family.
Albies received a call from the district attorney’s office Wednesday alerting her the state would be taking part in the investigation, she said.
“The family was appreciative that their request was heard and considered,” Albies said.
News of the arrangement was first reported by the Oregonian/OregonLive.
Around 9:26 a.m. on April 16, police were dispatched to Lents Park in Southeast Portland after dispatchers received a call about a man doing “quick draws” with what the caller believed was a handgun, according to police. The gun was later found to be a replica handgun with an orange tip.
In dispatch recordings released by police, officers say people in the park told them that Delgado, 46, had a gun. Portland Police do not wear body cameras, but a bystander video of the shooting shows police yelling at Delgado from behind trees and Delgado yelling back.
At 9:40 a.m., about four minutes after officers first arrived on scene, police said Officer Zachary DeLong shot Delgado from roughly 90 feet away, killing him. During the encounter, two other officers on the scene fired 40 mm less-lethal rounds.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Portland entered into a settlement agreement after the federal government found police regularly used excessive force toward people who experience mental illness. Ever since, the city and police have been working through a long list of requirements aimed at improving policing.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he supports the outside investigation.
“I believe in the importance of transparency and critical review of events such as this one and know other criminal justice partners have a role in the process,” Lovell said. “As a leader of an organization, I would never stand in the way of an independent look at an incident or our Bureau. We will cooperate and participate in this investigation as appropriate.”
Schmidt won election last year on a progressive platform to change how the criminal justice system works in Multnomah County. He said he supported independent investigations of police killings to “ensure transparency and independent review of all cases involving law enforcement misconduct and violence.”
In the hours after Delgado was killed, protesters descended on Lents Park and later destroyed property in downtown Portland.
In a release condemning the property destruction, Schmidt noted the city was “hurt and vulnerable.”
“I am sensitive to the community’s concern about yesterday’s deadly police shooting and the calls for answers and reform. Our investigation needs to be methodical and consistent,” he added. “We remain committed to an open and transparent process. Our objective is to seek answers.”
On April 19, the Mental Health Alliance — a collation of disability advocates, clergy, attorneys and medical professionals — wrote a letter to Schmidt calling for an outside agency to investigate the shooting, noting the “justice system relies on public trust to function.”
The alliance told Schmidt it was holding him to his campaign promise and asked that he bring in the state’s Justice Department. They also called on Gov. Kate Brown to appoint a special prosecutor, as an alternative.
“While we are not questioning the skill or professionalism of the attorneys who work in your office, their daily work with the Portland Police Bureau on criminal cases puts them in a difficult position when those same police are the ones being investigated,” the alliance members wrote. “It is crucial that we avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in this case.”
On Friday, Delgado’s family echoed the same request during a news conference.
“When a police officer shows up at a scene, they set the stage, they set the tone,” said Tina Delgado, Robert’s oldest sister. “That’s a big responsibility that they have in their hands. And I want them to be held accountable. I want an independent investigator. I want them to see how they could have handled the situation differently.”
Schmidt initially said his office understood the importance of certain investigations being handled by outside prosecutors and was open to the discussions, but neither the attorney general nor the governor had reached out.
Conversations between Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Schmidt this week lead to an agreement Wednesday. Schmidt’s office formally submitted its request for the Justice Department’s assistance Thursday.
The partnership doesn’t remove or replace PPB’s role in criminally investigating one of its own officers. Officers from the East County Major Crimes Team, which includes other area law enforcement agencies, are also involved in the investigation.
After the investigation is complete, the case will be reviewed by the prosecutors. From there, the case will likely go before a grand jury to determine whether DeLong’s use of force fits the legal definition of self-defense under Oregon law.
During an interview with OPB last September, Rosenblum spoke about her support for “independent investigations of police use of force whether it be tragically resulting in death, or any kind of use of force.”
She also said law enforcement agencies should not investigate themselves. Instead, she said district attorneys should lead the investigation if possible.
For his part, Schmidt said the partnership will ensure the investigation is impartial, and help restore trust in the criminal justice system. In a statement, Schmidt said he’s always maintained investigations, like an officer’s deadly use of force, should include an “investigative team separate from the involved agency and an outside prosecutor to determine the legality of the use of force.
“I look forward to having conversations that address how these investigations are handled in the future to maintain consistent and standardized practices statewide the moment an officer uses deadly force,” Schmidt said.