TAMPA — One day last month, interim Tampa police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado stepped to a lectern at Old City Hall.
Delgado had mostly stayed out of the spotlight as he climbed from rookie patrol officer to assistant chief over more than two decades at the Tampa Police Department. Now, controversy had erupted over his department’s Crime-Free housing program, and the City Council wanted answers from the person in charge.
In a calm, measured tone, Delgado defended the program that had drawn intense criticism from some and praise from others after being highlighted in a Tampa Bay Times story two weeks earlier. He acknowledged mistakes resulted in unfair evictions and outlined changes made to improve the program. But he said scrapping it would hurt law-abiding residents in participating apartment complexes.
“Sometimes when the person next door is dealing drugs out of a house or they’re robbing people, that quality of life for them goes away,” Delgado said. “They live in fear. I’ve seen it, driving around in patrol years ago.”
Council members told him to report back in 60 days with data showing how the program reduces crime.
It was a taste of the political realities that come with being chief that Delgado will have to get used to if he keeps the job.
Mayor Jane Castor, a former Tampa police chief who promoted Delgado earlier in his career, has said she is searching “around the nation” for someone to replace recently retired Chief Brian Dugan. Castor tapped Delgado to serve in the interim, presumably making him a favored internal candidate.
People inside and outside the department describe Delgado, 47, as a West Tampa success story — an even-keeled, personable leader who is calm under pressure and has the respect of peers and subordinates. He has the support of the Tampa police union and is praised by local officials who have worked with him.
“I think (the job) requires honest diplomacy, and I think Chief Delgado brings that to the table,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. “You need a credible messenger, you need someone who can be straightforward with you but open-minded and willing to listen.”
But critics of the department say Delgado, as an internal candidate, brings the baggage of previous controversies such as the disproportionate citations for Black bicyclists, the response to protests last year and now the Crime-Free housing program.
West Tampa roots
Ruben Robert Delgado II was born in Tampa, the youngest of Ruben and Diane Delgado’s three children.
Ruben Sr. owned an appliance parts store. Diane stayed home with the kids and later helped at the store. The couple still live in Delgado’s childhood home in West Tampa that is so close to La Teresita restaurant on Columbus Drive that the family walked there for Cuban sandwiches and café con leche.
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Delgado declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he wanted to respect Castor’s search process.
In a police department video released to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, Delgado says his great-great grandparents (on his father’s side) moved from Spain to Cuba, and their children were still young when the family moved to Ybor City, where Delgado’s grandparents and parents were born and raised.
In the video, Delgado described his family as large and close-knit. He said he picked up some Spanish from his grandmother but later lost a lot of what he’d learned. As kids, he and his friends rode bikes to Macfarlane Park to play for West Tampa Little League and later played ball together for Jefferson High School.
One of those friends, Rene Escobio, said Delgado did well in the classroom and on the field. He said Delgado got the nickname “Butch” from his grandfather, whose own son called him that.
“He’s never been flashy,” Escobio said. “His father definitely instilled morals and a work ethic in him.”
After graduating from Jefferson in 1992, Delgado spent two years at the University of Tampa and transferred to the University of Florida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology. He joined the Tampa department in 1998.
Delgado has never been the subject of an internal investigation and has never fired his service weapon in the line of duty. His personnel file contains two minor disciplinary actions for patrol car crashes.
During his time as a patrol officer, he worked in all three of the department’s districts. He was promoted to detective in 2004.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister recalled working with Delgado early in their careers when detectives from their respective agencies worked joint narcotics investigations.
“That’s when I grew fond of him, because even back then he understood the value of partnerships,” he recalled.
More recently, Chronister watched as Delgado took the lead in security planning for this year’s Super Bowl, a complex task that Delgado handled with “poise and class,” Chronister said.
After a promotion to sergeant in 2006, Delgado supervised a street crimes squad, then a detective squad. In 2009, shortly after taking over as chief, Castor promoted him to lieutenant.
Castor, who was chief until 2015, declined to comment for this story, citing the pending search.
In 2012, Delgado served as an assistant commander of a crowd management group when the city hosted the Republican National Convention. Kevin Plummer, head of Tampa Preparatory School, met Delgado during that event and they became friends.
One day during the convention, Plummer was riding with Delgado when he saw some protesters trying to take down security fencing near the Tampa Convention Center. Delgado calmly spoke to the protesters “about what this moment meant for our city,” Plummer recalled.
“You saw this whole thing go flat in a nanosecond and the people were like, maybe this isn’t the best idea today, and just walked away,” Plummer said. “It never became confrontational.”
Ascent to assistant chief
Castor promoted Delgado to captain in 2012. A few years later, he was assigned to oversee the Major Crimes Bureau.
About that time, as the Times was investigating how the department disproportionally stopped and ticketed Black bicyclists, department officials initially directed reporters to Delgado. He denied the bicycle law was being used primarily to root out drugs or fight crime unrelated to bikes, according to a story published in 2015. He said the department wanted to reduce the frequency of bicycle thefts and crashes, and tickets were a last resort.
But the Times found that the department had ticketed hundreds of Black bicyclists each year for more than a decade. Then-Chief Castor defended the practice as proactive policing meant to make high-crime parts of town safer. A U.S. Justice Department review agreed that was the intent but said the disproportionate ticketing was unfair and perceived as harassment.
Delgado was still captain over Major Crimes Bureau in 2017 when the department began to work a troubling case involving apparently random shootings in Seminole Heights.
Dugan, who was interim chief at the time, had briefly supervised Delgado early in their careers but got to know him better during the Seminole Heights case as part of a group who worked for 51 straight days until a suspect was arrested. Dugan said he was impressed by Delgado’s work ethic and ability to connect and communicate with people.
“His involvement in the Seminole Heights murders is what convinced me he had a bright future,” Dugan said.
After then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn made Dugan chief, Dugan promoted Delgado to major overseeing District 1, then in January 2019 made him deputy chief of investigations and support. Along with criminal investigations, Delgado oversaw specialty teams like SWAT and K-9, as well as administrative functions like purchasing.
“I was trying to expose Butch to a variety of different things so that if he ever got the opportunity to be chief, he had some background everywhere,” Dugan said.
Five months later, Dugan reorganized his executive team and made Delgado one of two assistant chiefs who reported directly to him. Dugan said Delgado became a trusted confidante, especially during last year’s civil unrest and protests after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
“He would gather people around and come up with plans on how we can deal with different situations and make sure that people were following through on those plans,” Dugan recalled.
Delgado was on the ground with frontline officers during a night of rioting in the University area and as protesters took to the streets, recalled police Major Mike Stout. Stout said Delgado stressed to officers the need to respect the right to peacefully protest.
Still, the department’s tactics during some protests have drawn scathing criticism and accusations of unwarranted force. Delgado does not get defensive in the face of such criticism, Stout said.
“He’ll openly talk to the frontline officers about what we’re doing right and what we could be doing better,” Stout said.
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP’s Hillsborough County branch, got to know Delgado last year during meetings with community leaders about police reform. She said he was engaged and seemed interested in making progress.
But Lewis said she has been disappointed by Delgado’s response to the Crime-Free housing controversy, which she has called another “biking while Black” blemish on the department. He has handled the episode “with a policeman’s mentality,” Lewis said, not fully appreciating how the program harmed people.
“As the chief of police, I’m looking for someone to say, you know, let’s stop this program altogether until we get a clear understanding that it’s the best thing for the community,” Lewis said.
As interim chief, the task to quell a surge in the city’s gun violence now falls squarely on Delgado’s shoulders.
At a news conference after the fatal shooting of 4-year-old Suni Bell in August, Delgado said the department has added more officers in areas plagued by violent crime and takes part in a regular “peace walk” with families of victims to raise awareness and encourage witnesses to come forward. He said the department will continue to work with community leaders like state Rep. Dianne Hart, who appeared at the news conference and lives in East Tampa, where shootings are common.
In an interview, Hart praised Delgado’s work on the Suni Bell case, which has netted five arrests, and said she has “great respect” for him. But she said it’s time to hire an outsider to take a fresh approach.
“It’s not that I don’t believe he’d be a good leader,” she said. “I just believe we need somebody new in our city with a different perspective.”
Chronister, who lives with his family in the city, offered a full-throated endorsement.
“I think if they allow Ruben Delgado to be the chief of police and make the critical decisions that he needs to make, we will all be grateful,” he said.
Family life in Valrico, union support
As Delgado climbed the ranks, he and wife Grace built a life in the suburbs south of the city.
They met at UF and married in 2000. Records show they’ve owned at least three homes in Valrico since then. In April, they bought a new five-bedroom home in a subdivision there.
A former elementary school teacher, Grace Delgado works as a sales presenter for an online learning software company. The couple’s son Chase attended Seffner Christian Academy and is a freshman at the University of Florida. Daughter Kendall is a sophomore at Durant High. The family are members at BayLife Church in Brandon.
Voting records show Delgado registered in 1995 without party affiliation and in April switched to the Republican Party. His friends describe him as politically moderate.
Delgado has the support of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents about 1,000 of the department’s sworn officers, said president Darla Portman.
Portman met Delgado in 2003 when she was first hired, and he was her captain in District I. Portman said Delgado commanded respect without making subordinates feel intimidated. Later, as PBA president, Portman found Delgado to be fair in dealing with officer discipline cases. She said his collaborative style is a marked difference from Dugan’s.
“There’s no ego with Butch, and I hate to say that about Dugan, but there was an ego there,” she said. “He told us he’s a dictator and this is a dictatorship and this is how I run it, whereas Butch has never been that way.”
Castor expects to make a decision on the chief by early next year, according to spokesman Adam Smith. In an email, Smith said the search is “not at all a wide open national search, but a more focused one.” Castor plans to narrow the field to a few candidates “who will engage with the community before the selection,” Smith said.
For some of the department’s critics, an internal candidate is a non-starter.
Delgado is not just a product of the Tampa department and its leadership, but also of Florida’s problematic policing culture, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, anti-racism educator for Black Lives Matter Tampa.
“He’s not bringing solutions to public safety that you find in other western democracies, he’s bringing solutions that come out of the American South with all of its complicated history,” he said. “We’re more and more an international community and we should be looking for the best of international solutions, not just doubling down on our own heritage.”
Dugan said skeptics should take time to get to know Delgado.
“He’s not going to be a puppet,” Dugan said. “He’s a smart man with his own opinions and he’ll make his own decisions.”