Portland police leadership have updated citywide policies to address racial disparities in traffic stops.
On Tuesday, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell announced that he's directed all officers to only focus on policing traffic violations that threatens public safety. This would limit officers from pulling over drivers for low-level infractions, like a broken headlight during daylight hours or expired tags—policies that have historically been used as pretext to predominantly stop and question drivers of color.
Black drivers have long been overrepresented in traffic stops in Portland. Portland Police Bureau (PPB) data shows that in 2019, 18 percent of all traffic stops involved Black drivers, despite Black people making up 6 percent of the city's population. This disparity is magnified when officers are assigned to deter gang activity: In 2018, a city audit found that 59 percent of drivers stopped by PPB's former Gang Enforcement Team were Black.
"We're working to change the historical fact that Black people have been disproportionally more likely to be stopped by police compared to their non-Black counterparts," said Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city's police commissioner, during a Tuesday press conference detailing the decision. "Prioritizing immediate safety threats will allow our officers to focus on what's truly important: keeping Portlanders safe."
Those types of threats include speeding, not using headlights at night, and other forms of dangerous driving.
Wheeler introduced another long-anticipated policy change Tuesday that would require officers who pull over drivers and wish to search their vehicle to first inform drivers of their constitutional right to refuse a search.
"There are many cases where people are unaware of their rights," said Wheeler.
PPB officers will be required to record the audio of their conversation, and will also have cards on hand to give drivers that contain more information.
This policy change was a piece of Wheeler's 19-point "Police Reform Action Plan" introduced in June 2020, following weeks of protest against police brutality and racial injustice.
State lawmakers attempted to make a similar policy recognized statewide this legislative session with House Bill 2002, which would had required police officers to inform people they pull over of their right to refuse an officer's request to search their vehicle. That bill didn't gain the support needed to move out of committee, however, and advocates declared it dead last week.
Wheeler acknowledged the failed bill Tuesday, but said that the city is "not going to wait for another legislative session to bring about the outcomes we want to see."
Lovell mentioned that these changes, specifically regarding violations, will improve the rate of traffic fatalities along with the city's ability to police equitably. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), the city has seen a 47 percent increase in traffic deaths in 2021, compared to this same time in 2020—an increase from 17 deaths to 25. Directing officers to focus on only pulling over people for violations that threaten safety will free up officers' time to prioritize driving issues that could turn fatal.
Improving traffic safety and reducing the over-policing of Black Portland have been the top priorities of City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, whose office oversees PBOT. Hardesty was not in attendance at the Tuesday press conference, but issued a statement on the heels of the event to express her approval.
"I strongly support today’s announcement that PPB will no longer pursue minor traffic violations and will limit car searches, while informing drivers of their constitutional rights during these encounters," Hardesty wrote. "This allows the police to focus on traffic violations that pose an immediate safety threat and other higher priority crime mitigation efforts, such as solving crimes related to the increase in gun violence."