"The City of Portland values all members of our community," begins a letter dated September 2, 2021, printed on letterhead from the Office of Mayor Ted Wheeler. "And I'm writing to acknowledge that Mr. Delgado passed away in Portland on April 16th, 2021. While the events are still being investigated, Mr. Delgado passed away as a result of the use of force by a member of Portland Police Bureau."
[Editor's Note: A previous version of this quote incorrectly mentioned "Mr. Townsend" instead of "Mr. Delgado." This was the Mercury's copy error, not Wheeler's. We regret this mistake.]
The letter, obtained by the Mercury through a records request, is addressed to "the loved ones of Robert Delgado," a man who was killed by a Portland police officer in April in Lents Park after been seen playing with a toy gun.
This is the first of two nearly-identical letters Wheeler sent this month to the families of men who were killed by Portland officers in 2021. The other was sent to the family of Michael Townsend, a man killed by a Portland officer in June after he called police to report his suicidal thoughts. Both officers responsible for Townsend and Delgado's deaths have been cleared of criminal charges for their fatal actions.
For members of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), these letters are a long time coming.
It's been more than two years since a PCCEP subcommittee first suggested that the city send a letter of condolence to the family of someone who was killed by an officer, within 24 hours of that person's death. The recommendation was inspired by a conversation with Donna Martin, the sister of Andre Gladen, a man who had been killed by Portland police in January 2019. Martin had met with Wheeler and then-police chief Danielle Outlaw after her brother's death, who assured her a fair investigation would be carried out. They also offered condolences. But, Martin said the experience felt "half-hearted," and she had wished for a more meaningful statement from city leadership about Gladen's death.
"We wanted to see sincerity," said former PCCEP member Patrick Nolen, who was on the subcommittee that crafted the initial recommendation. "We wanted the city to show that this mattered to them."
Amanda J. Marshall was also on the PCCEP subcommittee at the time. Marshall, a lawyer, knew that the city would be hesitant to admit its guilt in someone's death due to potential future litigation.
"We knew that it couldn't be framed as a letter of apology—the city's lawyers would not let them do that," said Marshall. "The concept was that, it's not about fault, it's about loss. And acknowledging that loss."
After several delays, PCCEP adopted that recommendation in early 2021. The final recommendation suggested that a letter be sent within 7 to 10 business days, instead of 24 hours. Wheeler formally adopted the group's recommendation to send letters of condolence in March 2021.
PCCEP was formed in 2018 by Wheeler to meet a requirement of the city's settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which was created after the DOJ determined Portland police used disproportionate force against people with mental illnesses. Since its creation, Wheeler has regularly thrown his support behind most recommendations made by the police oversight group, like the one promising letters of condolence.
Yet, he didn't follow this recommendation until months after he pledged to adopted the practice.
The timing of this action is notable.
On August 31, Townsend's sister Rachel Steven addressed PCCEP during the group's monthly meeting. During the virtual meeting she told members that she had never heard from the mayor's office, let alone from the investigators who she contacted to get copies of Townsend's 911 call.
"I’m really disappointed about hearing [PCCEP's] recommendation for condolences, and just... nothing," said Steven. "This was an amazing man, my only sibling. Now I’ve got to live without him forever. It’s absolutely devastating."
PCCEP leadership expressed their frustration with the city's apparent decision to ignore the group's recommendation. PCCEP's former co-chair Elliott Young shared his dissatisfaction on Twitter:
"It shouldn't take a community group's vote to get the mayor to do the human thing, and the lack of follow through after he approved the idea, suggests a lack of care or mismanagement," wrote Young. "On behalf of PCCEP, I offered our condolences."
"Tonight was my last night on [PCCEP] after 2 yrs," Young continued. "The lack of follow through on the condolences by the mayor is an example of how difficult it is to make change in the city, even with the vote of the mayor’s [committee] and his signed commitment. The struggle continues."
Wheeler sent letters to Townsend and Delgado's families two days later. The two letters are identical, save for the name of the victim and the date of their death. They both center PCCEP's role in the process.
"The City of Portland is involved in an important community conversation about public safety in the City, and the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing has recommended that the City reach out and express the City's condolences to the family of those who pass away as a result of the use of force by police officers," the letter reads. "I agree with this recommendation coming from our community dialogue on policing, and I want to formally express our condolences on behalf of the City of Portland."
Marshall said that including this explanation in the letters wasn't in line with the intention of PCCEP's recommendation.
"The whole idea was for it to be meaningful," said Marshall. "Not, 'I'm doing this because someone told me I had to.' That is not the spirit we wanted. It has to be sincere. To me, that doesn’t sound sincere."
Nolen agreed. "It doesn't feel like they're taking it seriously," he said.
Wheeler's letter ends with an offer to speak with the victims' families, if so desired. He also includes a list of local mental health resources for the letters' recipients. According to Wheeler's office, this practice will become more commonplace in the future.
"The Mayor is committed to following through with the committee’s recommendation to contact family members of all those who have been killed by police moving forward," wrote Wheeler spokesperson Sara Morrissey in an email to the Mercury. "We will continue to listen and learn from committee members and the broader Portland community about how best to respond to these circumstances and continue to make necessary improvements."