Near the end of 2020, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Chief Chuck Lovell announced that due to budget constraints and staff shortages, the bureau would effectively disband its Traffic Division. This meant that while officers could still conduct traffic enforcement, there was no longer a team dedicated solely to that purpose.
The decision meant far fewer Portlanders were pulled over while driving, or stopped by police while walking. At the same time, traffic crash fatalities in the city have been at record highs.
Last week, Lovell announced he would partially reinstate the bureau's Traffic Division, assigning a team of 14 officers to patrol Portland's high-crash areas in the afternoons. Lovell said he made the decision in part because of the rise of fatal crashes in Portland over the last two years.
"[We have] heard from our community that they want and expect traffic enforcement to help keep our roadways safe for all users," Lovell said.
Since PPB gutted its Traffic Division in 2021, transportation safety advocates have called on the city to embrace another method of enforcement: speed cameras. Advocates say cameras placed at red lights and intersections are advantageous because they limit the potential for racial bias in traffic enforcement and allow overburdened police officers to focus on other issues. Now that PPB's Traffic Division is back, some wonder what will happen to the city of Portland's efforts to increase automated enforcement on the streets.
Portland transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust (TST) noted TST staff have been "advocating intensively for increased automated traffic enforcement... to ensure that low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and other marginalized groups are not disproportionately fined and/or surveilled and to ensure due process is maintained,” the group said in a May 9 news release.
Automated traffic enforcement like red light cameras and intersection cameras are under the purview of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps and his predecessor, former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, have both advocated for automated enforcement tactics, though Mapps has been a strong proponent for bringing back police traffic enforcement as well. Though the agency has had some trouble getting traffic cameras up and running, PBOT installed the city's first intersection safety camera at East 122nd Ave and Stark Street in April 2022. There are red light cameras in 10 locations around the city, with more planned for installation later this year.
A state law passed last year allowing city employees to review traffic camera footage will also make it easier for the City of Portland to utilize automated enforcement. Before this law was passed, only police officers were able to review the footage.
PBOT and PPB staff both say they think using police officers and cameras for enforcement are complementary efforts. PPB still uses a traffic photo van to catch speeding drivers.
“Cameras mounted in a position provide 24-hour coverage of a location that human enforcement can't match. The consistency and static nature of our cameras program means they can, over time, change the way people drive in an area because regular travelers on that corridor learn to expect the camera enforcement to be there, and they reduce their speed accordingly,” PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera wrote in an email to the Mercury. “Human enforcement has the advantage of being more mobile. Officers can enforce on one street one day, and another location the next. That can help keep drivers on their toes: If you're not certain where enforcement will be from one day to the next, perhaps you make a habit of slowing down as you travel throughout the city.”
PPB Public Information Officer Sgt. Kevin Allen called traffic cameras a "good tool in the toolbox to reduce dangerous driving behavior," but said automated enforcement has limitations.
"A traffic camera would never be able to identify, stop, evaluate, and arrest an impaired driver," Allen told the Mercury. He also said people are able to obfuscate their license plates from traffic cameras, rendering the camera enforcement ineffective. Allen said this is especially problematic in cases where someone steals a car and drives it recklessly.
Addressing concerns over bias in policing, Allen said that while Chief Lovell is concerned about racial disparities in police work, he also "points out that these racial disparities exist in nearly every facet of our society, and he believes that this is an issue that’s bigger than just policing.”
Even before PPB halted its Traffic Division in 2021, the bureau took steps to reduce traffic stops for minor violations. The change was an effort to prevent officers from pulling over drivers for things like broken tail lights or expired registration—infractions that are often used by police to target drivers of color. In 2022, that action was followed by the passage of Oregon Senate Bill 1510, which prohibits police from stopping drivers for certain low-level traffic violations.
Transportation safety advocates hope PPB's newly-reinstated Traffic Division will make Portland's streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. But they caution enforcement—whether with cameras or officers—isn't enough to curb traffic violence altogether. Responding to news of the Traffic Division’s return, The Street Trust called for a more radical transformation on Portland’s streets.
"Ultimately, enforcing the rules of the road is only one part of the equation—educating the public and redesigning our streets at a human scale may ultimately play bigger roles," Sarah Iannarone, executive director of The Street Trust, said in last week’s news release. "We need to adopt a public health approach to address the epidemic of violence in our streets and fund infrastructure that can help ensure that every Portlander gets home to their loved ones at the end of the day, regardless of zip code or travel mode."